The Times Are Never So Bad
The death and resurrection of the contemporary American short story is one of the more interesting literary developments of the past two decades. Ten years ago, laments concerning the demise of the mass market for short fiction and the absence of legitimate successors to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner were something of a cliché in literary circles. Although some of the same conditions exist in the 1980’s—no equivalent to the Saturday Evening Post insinuates “serious” fiction into the typical grocery basket—the short story has obviously returned from its premature interment. Young short-story writers such as Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, Jayne Ann Phillips, James Alan McPherson, Barry Hannah, and Raymond Carver have emerged as artists comparable to the most promising younger novelists; their best stories, such as Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” share the power of their “classic” predecessors. Until recently less widely recognized than The New Yorker regulars such as Beattie, Andre Dubus clearly belongs in the front rank of this emerging group. His first collection of stories, Separate Flights (1975), while not as commercially successful as Mason’s Shiloh (1982) or Beattie’s Distortions (1976), established Dubus’ reputation as a careful craftsman with extraordinary psychological insight, a reputation largely upheld by his subsequent collections Adultery & Other Choices (1977) and Finding a Girl in America (1981).
The Times Are Never So Bad confirms Dubus’ position. Three stories—“Bless Me, Father,” “The New Boy,” and “A Father’s Story”—assume positions alongside the most powerful pieces in the earlier collections. Each is clearly identifiable as a “Dubus story”: Each focuses on the response of an individual consciousness to an ambiguous web of personal relationships; each is firmly grounded in a specific place and time; each is presented from a narrative perspective closely linked to the central character; each concludes with an ambiguous epiphany implying a readjustment of the troubling relationship. Of the eight stories in the collection (there is also a novella), only “The Captain,” an interesting attempt to imply psychological movement by varying the accent of the central characters’ speech patterns, employs a technique not developed in Dubus’ previous volumes. Depending on the aesthetic predilections of the individual reader, this consistency can be viewed as strength or limitation. Certainly within the context of the current short-story renaissance—which, as part of the attempt to recapture a sizable audience, has almost entirely repudiated technical experimentation—the mastery of familiar forms has been instrumental in gaining Dubus his well-deserved recognition.
The consistency of form and theme in The Times Are Never So Bad nevertheless raises serious questions concerning both Dubus’ development and the implications of the resurgence of the short story. The primary question concerns the increasingly obvious “standard” mode of the stories published in the most prominent magazines and reviews. A description of the “typical Dubus story” could, with minor modifications, serve as a description of the “typical Beattie story” or the “typical Carver story.” Accidents of birth and career dictate different settings—Dubus’ characters usually inhabit Louisiana, where he was born, or the Boston/New Hampshire area, where he now lives—but the emphasis on psychological reality, the use of limited perspectives, and the repudiation of explicit intellectual or social commentary remains constant. The similarity of voice should not be overstated; few readers would confuse Carver’s sparse landscapes with Dubus’ relatively lush introspective passages. Each of the writers has stylistic signatures; Dubus uses an exceptionally large number of semicolons and colons to emphasize the gradual development of complex thoughts out of perceptions which, if presented in separate sentences, would seem unrelated. In “A Father’s Story,” Dubus employs a theological diction rare in the work of his contemporaries, reflecting in part his Catholic faith. Nevertheless, even that diction intimates the consistency of the contemporary short-story aesthetic. Like the military speech of “The Captain,” the theological diction is justified through connection to the mind of the protagonist of “A Father’s Story.” If Mason were to discover a renegade Catholic in the Kentucky backlands, she would almost certainly employ a similar vocabulary. In fact, very few contemporary short-story writers endorse any perceptions or comments in a voice that can be read without serious ironic revaluation. The thoughts available to the reader, the terms for articulating a situation, are limited almost entirely to those available to the viewpoint character.
This results in a disturbingly narrow perspective, almost entirely incapable of confronting the underlying social forces or theological issues that condition the experience of the central consciousnesses the writers present with such intimacy. This reticence accounts for the seemingly static quality of many Dubus stories—a stasis, it should be noted, that is certainly intentional and well crafted. Focusing on delicate shifts in his characters’ perspectives, Dubus presents major plot events primarily through carefully constructed flashbacks. This results in a complex psychological approach to the event which is viewed both from the character’s current perspective and from the character’s past perspective as remembered in the present. The actual event is of less interest than the struggle of the character to comprehend...
(The entire section is 2350 words.)