SOURCE: "Eavesdropping on the Quotidian," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 224, No. 8, February 26, 1977, pp. 248-50.
[Lyons is an American author and critic. In the following review, he describes the stories in Separate Flights as snapshots of late twentieth-century American life and asserts that Dubus's fiction is characterized by finely crafted characters and believable circumstances.]
Madison Avenue and the organized churches aside, marriage has few defenders these days, and if a social unit can be invented that will move more lawn mowers, console TV sets, station wagons and automatic corn poppers than the nuclear family, the only place you will be able to see a married couple will be on educational television. At first glance Andre Dubus's Separate Flights, published in 1975 seems to be one more brief for the prosecution. After ten years of marriage here is how the narrator and protagonist of the novella "We Don't Live Here Anymore" talks about the institution:
For some years now I have been spiritually allergic to the words husband and wife. When I read or hear husband I see a grimly serene man in a station wagon; he is driving his loud family on a Sunday afternoon. They will end with ice cream, sticky car seats, weariness, and ill tempers. In his youth he had the virtues of madness: rage and passion and generosity. Now he gets a damp sponge from the kitchen and wipes dried ice cream from his seat covers. He longs for the company of loud and ribald men, he would like to drink bourbon and fight in a bar, steal a pretty young girl and love her through the night. When someone says wife I see the confident, possessive, and amused face of a woman in her kitchen; among bright curtains and walls she offers her husband a kiss as he returns from the day sober, paunchy, on his way to some nebulous goal that began as love, changed through marriage to affluence, is now changing to respectable survival. She is wearing a new dress. From her scheming heart his balls hang like a trophy taken in battle with a young hero long dead.
His own marriage is not even remotely like that; nor is the marriage of his best friend Hank, whom he is cuckolding, and who before the end of the story will have returned the favor. But this is the stance they like to assume when the need for excusing themselves from the sins of egomania seizes them. Now drinking with the boys is one thing, but anybody who longs for fist fights is a sentimentalist: either he had very few in his youth or he watches far too many cowboy movies. And as for the one-night stand, it is likely to be the leading cause of marriage. No amount of masculine or feminist posturing has been able to conceal or change that. In our culture anyway, casual copulation seems to make almost everybody sad.
The vision behind Dubus's fiction is sober, unsparing and exact, but never pitiless. With one or two exceptions, stories like "The Doctor," or "In My Life," which are so short and comparatively slight as to seem almost unfinished, any of the novella and seven short stories contained in Separate Flights might serve as textbook examples of what one means by calling a fiction writer a "craftsman." Dubus puts his stories together like a man with one eye on the future and declines to argue, as I have done in the first paragraph, with contemporary cant and delusion. Each of the stories has...
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its own voice and point of view, as if Dubus were telling his readers rather flatly that: "Here is the way they lived inside American houses in the latter third of the 20th century. This is what they said and did and what they cared about and cried over. You may draw your own conclusions." In many ways he is like Joan Didion without the name brands and the grotesquery, perhaps because his characters live in New England, Iowa and Louisiana rather than in California. In the absence of God they construct their small melodramas out of an inability to live without some kind of myth, and in one way or another those melodramas involve the departure of love and the incipient discovery of mortality. It is time and faithlessness—religious and sexual—that destroys spontaneity. The way back always seems shorter than the way out, particularly if one has no good reason to return. It bears mentioning that Dubus is, or was at least—it is impossible to tell from the stories themselves—a Catholic.
I find I must correct myself. Some of the characters in one of his stories, "Miranda Over the Valley," do live in Southern California. The Miranda of the title is a Boston University freshman who discovers on Halloween that she was impregnated by her high school boyfriend just before leaving Los Angeles. Her parents fly her home to poolside to talk her out of marriage and into an abortion, offering her more or less as a bribe a Christmas trip to Acapulco with her lover, a conscience-stricken young man who plans to become a poverty lawyer. Her mother is abortion's most strenuous advocate:
"… What are you going to be, pussycat—a dumb little housewife? Your husband will be out in the world, he'll be growing, and all you'll know is diapers and Gerbers. You've got to finish college—"… She looked at Michaelis; he was watching her mother, listening. "You can't make marriage the be-all and end-all. Because if you do it won't work. Listen: from the looks of things we've got one of the few solid marriages around. But it took work, pussycat. Work." Her eyes gleamed with the victory of that work, the necessity for it. "And we were older. I was twenty-six, I'd been to school, I'd worked; you see the difference it makes? After all these years with this guy—and believe me some of them have been like standing in the rain—now that I'm getting old and going blind from charcoal smoke at least I know I didn't give anything up to get married. Except my independence. But I was fed up with that. And all right: I'll tell you something else too. I'd had other relationships. With men. That helped too. There—" she lightly smacked the table "—that's my confession for the night."
But her face was not the face of someone confessing.
Her father puts it even more simply: "Listen sweetheart, I know you can work. That's not the point. The point is, why suffer?" Miranda, however, cannot help but suffer; she is the suffering kind, and flying to New York with her mother for the abortion is not to her like having a hangnail treated. Unlike her roommate in Boston she is no good at casual lovemaking; both the trip to Acapulco and her relationship with Michaelis are off at the end of the story and "her mother's eyes (and, yes, her father's too) were hesitant, vulpine. How can we get our daughter back? the eyes said. We have saved her. But now how do we get her back?"
I hope that the reader will not jump to conclusions from a summary that necessarily simplifies a story that is, after all, about a young woman making an important decision, a story, if you will, about the impossibility of one's youthful expectations. It is not possible to determine, on the evidence at hand, what Dubus thinks about abortion as an abstract legal, moral or even theological question; I suspect he would say it doesn't matter to the story. The things to notice are the author's fictive gifts and his discipline, the carefully restrained wit and compactness of his characterizations.
The protagonists of "We Don't Live Here Anymore" have all four made the opposite, or at least one of the other choices on the unmarried pregnancy question. We have heard one of the husbands. Here is the other:
… A love affair is abandon. Put the joy back in fucking…. It doesn't even matter if you love Terry. You're married. What matters is not to hate each other, and to keep peace. The old Munich of marriage. You live with a wife, around a wife, not through her. She doesn't run with you and come drink beer with you, for Christ sake. Love, shit. Love the kids. Love the horny wives and the girls in short skirts. Love everyone, my son, and keep peace with your wife. Who, by the way, is not invulnerable to love either.
The complications that ensue between and among two couples who know one another with sufficient intimacy to feel sympathy and even a kind of love all around are so sad, so harrowing when they all decide to confess to each other and tell the "truth," and so perfectly calibrated for time and place and character (academics in a small Massachusetts town in the late 1960s) that anyone who has ever lived in such surroundings may wonder from time to time whether Dubus has been eavesdropping upon the souls of people he has known, and perhaps even upon his own.
Having said all of this, it must also be reported that in its very exactitude and spurning of rhetorical melodrama, Dubus's style occasionally disappoints the very expectations that it raises. Observing his wife, who after all is only 30—she sounds at times and is spoken of as if she were twenty years older—the narrator of "We Don't Live Here Anymore," who describes her as "the prettiest girl I had ever seen; or rather, the prettiest girl I had ever touched," sees in her "that sad, pensive look that married women get after a few years," and castigates himself for having abandoned her emotionally. But after a while one wonders whether or not he, and by extension the author, has not come by his "tragic" detachment a little too easily. None of Dubus's characters tries very hard to be good; if any of them have serious work to do besides measuring the velocity of their fall into helplessness it is rarely reported. Much as I admire the skillful presentation of the novella I am prone to wonder, after a while, as George Orwell wondered over Graham Greene's Scobie from The Heart of the Matter, whether or not "if he really felt that adultery was mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken."
Similar reservations qualify my admiration for "If They Knew Yvonne," a piece that seems more memoir than fiction about a young man's reconciliation of sexuality and Catholic puritanism in Louisiana—Dubus was raised and educated there—during the 1950s. Again, anybody that guilty over masturbation probably would either have quit or become considerably less pious about it. In any case Dubus's nice evocation of his protagonist's betrayal of his first lover, the Yvonne of the title, in a moment of callow adolescent braying is in itself worth the price of the book, as is the evocation of the boyish innocence of his sister's 5-year-old son that ends it. It is in moments like Yvonne's shaming that it all begins, this war between men and women, and reading the story might well help to effect a minor truce or two. Not all women were so blamelessly exploited then as they sometimes like to remember, and not all men were or are so proud of exploiting.
"Separate Flights," the title story of the collection, displays the same strengths as the others, and there the steadiness and integrity of Dubus's style lends force to an otherwise familiar figure: the middle-aged, middle-class person whose life has come to nothing. Very little that is out of the ordinary or even detectable to anyone but her husband—when he is paying attention—happens to Beth Harrison. She drinks too much, fantasizes lovers she is too timid to take, dries out for a while, and when her youngest daughter Peggy goes away to college yields to boozing again. When her husband wonders if her discontent has been caused by the onset of menopause she admits to a form of slow-motion suicide: "I'll die of lung cancer, wearing a tampax."
There is one passage in "Separate Flights" that epitomizes both my admiration for and reservations about Dubus's work, and perhaps the best way to deal with my own ambivalence is to try it out on you and let you decide for yourselves. It occurs during a passage discussing Beth Harrison's insomnia:
She knew this much, though: she was not equipped to solve a problem of this sort. Until now she had always dealt with problems that had alternatives and you weighed them and made a choice, like buying one dishwasher instead of another. But now the buyer's instinct was useless: what was needed was a probing insight into herself, and this was a bitter and unprofitable task. For when she did try to explore herself she found—oh God: she found nothing.
That part of my critical sense that responds to the tight economy of Dubus's writing is pleased; another part of me is made uneasy at the invocation of the familiar suburban Nada and wishes that in this story as in others Dubus would be a bit less craftsmanlike and more adventurous in both plot and theme. But I may be asking for an essay instead of a story by asking that. Dubus might very well respond that he doesn't exactly know why his characters feel so sad, or that what he knows is no more than what we can all read about in any issue of Newsweek or Ms. So I leave it up to you.
In any case Andre Dubus is exactly the kind of writer who has been well served by publishing with Godine, for while that house is hardly unknown, it treats a book of short stories like these in a way that a large publishing house would not. Separate Flights is not only very handsomely designed and printed but it is still in print and very much available now, almost two years since its publication date. Had it come out with a large commercial press it would very likely have died unmentioned in about three months, and would long since have been remaindered. In the long run Godine will probably do well with the book; Dubus is too good to languish unread. One has only to read a few pages to know that one is reading the genuine thing.
Andre Dubus 1936–
American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Dubus's works through 1996. See also Andre Dubus Criticism (Volume 13).
Characterized as a Southerner who seldom writes about the South, Dubus is known for realistic fiction that explores the desires, disillusionment, and moral dilemmas of contemporary American society, and he is noted for his deft creation of believable characters in everyday circumstances. Critics particularly acknowledge Dubus's realistic portrayal of the thoughts and emotions of his female protagonists.
Dubus grew up in a middle-class Southern family. He has credited his lifelong Catholicism with sharpening his sense of curiosity about people and their actions and with serving as a foundation for his compassion toward others. He served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps before entering the University of Iowa in 1964 to pursue graduate studies in writing. By 1966 Dubus was living in Massachusetts, the setting for many of his works, and teaching modern fiction and creative writing at Bradford College. His first novel, The Lieutenant, was published the following year. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Dubus continued lecturing and writing short stories and novellas. In 1986 he lost one leg and nearly died in a highway accident that occurred when he stopped to help two stranded motorists. During his rehabilitation, Dubus wrote and published a collection of essays, Broken Vessels (1991), several of which specifically reflect the physical and emotional pain of this experience. He has been awarded Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships; at the age of 59, Dubus won the Rea Award for short story writing.
Dubus is best known for well-plotted, realistic stories which typically center on the turbulence, and sometimes the violence, of male-female relationships. Although his characters often attempt to escape the pain of unstable marriages by committing adultery—as in the stories of Dubus's first collection, Separate Flights (1975), and in the title story of Adultery, and Other Choices (1977)—their promiscuous affairs usually intensify, rather than relieve, their dissatisfaction. Catholicism is a strong and generally positive presence in Dubus's fiction. The lifelong struggle to reconcile the remnants of one's religious training with the desires and demands of contemporary American life is a central theme in each of the four novellas and two short stories which comprise The Last Worthless Evening (1986). In "A Father's Story" from The Times Are Never So Bad (1983), a man whose daughter has killed someone in an automobile accident seeks comfort through religious ritual and a compassionate priest. Two stories from this collection revolve around abused women: "The Pretty Girl" describes a man who terrorizes his ex-wife and her lover, and "Leslie" concerns a disillusioned woman beaten by her drunken husband. Much of the writing in Broken Vessels and Dancing After Hours (1996) grew out of Dubus's experiences after his accident in 1986. "The exuberant self of memory [in Broken Vessels] and the chastened self he possesses after the accident war with each other," Leonard Kriegel noted, as Dubus lays bare the pain of losing the mobility and physical activities he cherished as well as the self-sufficiency he believed was expected of him. With Dancing After Hours Dubus melds his experiences as a cripple, the term he prefers, with the themes of his previous work, exploring "the ways lives can suddenly change, sometimes with sudden cruelty, sometimes with grace," as a Publishers Weekly critic explained. The title story of the collection earned Dubus the Rea Award for short fiction in 1996.
Dubus has received generally favorable critical attention throughout his career. He has been particularly noted for his ability to explore the ethical contradictions of society through the perspective of ordinary people whose everyday lives are laced with ambivalence and moral conflict. Although some critics have found Dubus's work powerful and relevant but "depressing to read," as Charles Deemer remarked, or his characters "resolutely ungiving and uncharming," as Joyce Carol Oates asserted, Dubus's sensitive portrayal of the inner lives of both men and women has merited critical praise. Many reviewers have remarked on the impact of Dubus's accident on his writing, praising the wisdom and grace with which he recovered from and continues to manage the devastating changes it brought to his life.
SOURCE: "Some Good Moments," in The New York Times Book Review, November 20, 1977, p. 14.
[Broyard was an American author and critic. In the following review, he suggests that the title story of Adultery, and Other Choices is most reflective of Dubus's talent for storytelling.]
Freshening up the subject of adultery in fiction is no mean feat and Andre Dubus does a good job of it in the long title story of Adultery and Other Choices. Edith and Hank Allison have what Hank describes as "a loving, intimate marriage," and to a degree, this is true. Hank is both tender and passionate with Edith, he respects her, and he wants and needs the stable structure of their life together.
Yet Edith feels that Hank, who is a novelist and teacher, "is keeping himself in reverse," that "with his work he created his own harmony, and then he used the people he loved to relax with." While such a relationship lacks the romantic extravagance that so many of us hope for in the unreasonable depths of our hearts, it succeeds for perhaps the same reason. Its demands can comfortably be met. Relaxing with someone can be dressed up as love, especially when a man brings to his wife the intense afterglow of his work.
But the arrangement cannot afford any further qualifications. When Hank admits that he is having an affair, that is bad enough: when he adds that he does not believe in the "unnatural boundaries of life-long monogamy," there is for Edith no longer any raison d'être in their marriage. She has given herself to Hank, and he has given her back. She does not know what to do with the stranger she has suddenly become. Is she liberated or abandoned? She can't tell.
When Edith tries to defend and rediscover herself by having an affair with Jack Linhart, she exchanges her emotional security for the peculiar chess game, for the acrostics of adultery. But adultery turns out to be only a kind of pressure cooker compared to the leisurely feast of marriage. Edith feels that she and Jack "made love too much, pushing their bodies to consume the yearning they had borne and to delay the yearning that was waiting." She finds it difficult to live, or love, in spasms.
How does one enjoy adultery? Edith wonders, looking at Debbie, one of Hank's students and his latest mistress. In her affair with Hank, Debbie "had come without history into not history"—how can that be enough? Who can live on it?
Edith articulates her own needs when she falls in love with Joe, a former Catholic priest. Before her, Joe was a virgin, and she feels that "she holds his entire history in her body." While this is too much to expect of love, it does throw some perspective on what love ideally strives for. When Joe dies of cancer, Edith understands that one of the things love does is to console us for the fact of death. Love is a flirtation with immortality: nothing less will do. Her marriage with Hank is not profound enough to fortify her against death, and perhaps that function is its only ultimate justification.
Not all of the stories in Adultery and Other Choices are as satisfying as this one. Several stories about childhood seem to be, like virtually all stories about childhood, lugubrious. The looking back in this kind of fiction is usually the least dimensional form of nostalgia. It is difficult enough to make an adult interesting, and a child's vulnerability may have been turned into a tired cliché by post-Freudian fiction. In the end, it seems that such stories are most moving to the author himself and that what the reader feels may be only a detached pity that does not even pass through art.
Army stories are not much better, and Mr. Dubus has written some of these too. Like adultery, Army life offers a temporary intensity with severely limited references. More successful is a story called "The Fat Girl," in which an unattractively stout girl diets herself into beauty, marriage, and what is generally regarded as a reasonably happy life, only to discover that she has also dieted away her appetite for that life, that, in some way, her fatness was part of her essence and now she is only a mannequin of other people's expectations.
In the title story of Adultery and Other Choices, Mr. Dubus appears to have found his best voice. Even without the help of some good moments in the lesser stories, this one alone will make it worth your while to go out and get the book.
The Lieutenant (novel) 1967Separate Flights (short stories) 1975Adultery, and Other Choices (short stories) 1977Finding a Girl in America (short stories) 1980The Times Are Never So Bad (short stories) 1983Land Where My Fathers Died (novella) 1984Voices from the Moon (short stories) 1984We Don't Live Here Anymore (short stories) 1984The Last Worthless Evening (short stories) 1986Selected Stories (short stories) 1988Broken Vessels (essays) 1991Dancing After Hours (short stories) 1996
SOURCE: "These Days in the Holocene," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Winter, 1980–81, pp. 575-88.
[In the following excerpt, Perez offers a critical overview of Finding a Girl in America, suggesting that Dubus's stories provide a believable context for the dramatization of significant moral issues.]
The stories in Andre Dubus's new collection, Finding a Girl in America,… often deal with losing, and with looking again for a girl in America. In one story, set before and during the Second World War, a man from Texas has a girl in his home town who seems ideal for him, but after he joins the Marines he gets to cherish his life with the troops, keeps her waiting for years, and finally cannot bring himself to marry her; he breaks her heart but the real loss, we are left in no doubt, is his. The greater loss seems to be the woman's in another story of conflict between marriage and career, which deals with a young pitcher of major-league potential who unknowingly neglects his wife in his devotion to the game. Even when not on the road, he has been virtually absent on the nights before pitching, needing "to enter the rhythm and concentration that would work for him when he actually had the ball in his hand"; and on the day when he is to pitch the decisive game of the season his wife tells him she's leaving him for another man. "Can't a man try to be the best at what he's got to do and still love his wife?" he pleads with her, but he can see it's no use, she's in love with the other man, an unglamorous small-town dentist with a wife and two kids of his own. Although the pitcher's impulse is to give his wife's lover a beating, he realizes he must do something that, like many of the demands of his profession, is "unnatural": he sets to regain that rhythm and concentration he needs for the game. Having lost his wife, he loses the game too, but not because he didn't pitch very well. His future looks bright, the pain caused him by his wife will pass, and what future can she have with that married dentist? Dubus tends to uphold in this book the values of that eroded institution, marriage: against the Marine who forsook his girl, against the wife who wouldn't stick by the pitcher and his dreams of being the best.
Skill as a refuge from pain, the pitcher's skill at his decisive game or that displayed, in another story, by a boy adeptly delivering newspapers from his bicycle with his younger brother in tow while knowing that, earlier that morning, their mother left home for good: this, among other things in the book, reminds one of that other eroded institution, Hemingway. Hemingway explicitly comes up at one point in the title novella, when the protagonist, a thirty-five-year-old writer named Hank Allison who teaches at a college in Massachusetts, mentions A Farewell to Arms to a woman he's in bed with. She hasn't read it, has little interest in literature, which is the chief reason Hank stops seeing her, the only woman his own age he has had an affair with since his divorce. Not that Hank shares the pitcher's aspirations to reach the top in his career—he sees himself "just as an unknown, average, .260-hitting writer"—but he thinks his work "the best of himself," and places it first in his life even if his relationships with women turn out to suffer in consequence.
That was apparently his main problem with Monica, who told him so when she left him. She was the third young girl in a row, all students, to leave Hank after a year or more with him:
None but Monica had told him why, in words he could understand. The other two had cried and talked about needing space. When the first left him he was sad, but he was all right. The loss of the second frightened him. That was when he saw his trap.
Now over a year has passed since Hank last saw Monica, and another student, Lori, a year younger, has taken her place. From this present time, narrated in the present tense, the novella makes its frequent excursions into Hank's past, the first occurring right at the beginning. High on the tequila they are drinking in bed together, Lori tells him something about his previous girlfriend that hurts and enrages him beyond what he had thought possible: Monica had been pregnant by him and had had an abortion. That child unknown to him till now, done away with on Monica's wishes, Hank feels strongly was equally his—he's given to using the first person plural when talking about his women's pregnancies—and he very much would have wanted it. His rage at his former girlfriend is wholly understandable, the moral issues raised by abortion much more complicated than allowed for by the familiar argument one can imagine Monica using to justify herself, about the baby being part of the woman's body and thus for her to do with as she sees fit. Still, what did Hank expect? Readily performed abortions are part of the code of sexual behavior that gives students freedom to sleep with their professors without much thought of an enduring attachment—the freedom Hank has benefited from. And his marriage, from which he has a daughter by now pretty close in age to his girlfriends, ended as a result of his making it an "open" marriage in order to satisfy his itch for sexual experimentation.
I respect Dubus's earnestness, and his ability to dramatize these moral issues in the story of Hank Allison; but I think he relies on too simple a scheme in casting Monica as the frivolous girl who makes Hank see the error of his ways, and Lori as the serious girl who, as it turns out, truly loves him. Taken individually, they are both believable characters: the brief sketch we get of Monica is sufficient, and the fuller portrayal of Lori—her doubts about herself, her one unsatisfactory sexual experience prior to Hank, her quietness in contrast with the aggressive flirtatiousness (and probable infidelities) of her mother—makes it convincing that she should have fallen in love with Hank. But the place Dubus assigns the two of them in Hank's life is too pat. Not only has Hank lost all desire for sexual experimentation, he can't even make love to Lori after he hears from her about the abortion, and in a touching scene near the end he tells her he can't again: "Ever. With anyone. Unless both of us are ready for whatever happens … I'm going to court you. And if someday you say you'll marry me, then it'll be all right …" Yes, she says right then and there, since that's what she's wanted herself but in her shyness hasn't expressed in all the time she's been sleeping with him: lucky for Hank to have found an old-fashioned girl to coincide with his belated conversion to old-fashioned courtship and marriage.
Homes, Jon. "With Andre Dubus." Boston Review IX, No. 4 (August 1984): 7-8.
Essay based on an interview with Dubus in which he comments on childhood and real-life influences on his fiction.
Kennedy, Thomas E. Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988, 176 p.
In-depth thematic and stylistic analyses of Dubus's short fiction.
Milne, Kirsty. "Mass Movements." New Statesman and Society 3, No. 91 (9 March 1990): 36.
Praises Dubus's talent for creating links between emotional and physical life in his Selected Stories.
Pritchard, William H. "Some August Fiction." The Hudson Review XXXVI, No. 4 (Winter 1983–84).
Lauds Dubus for his realistic description of place and calls him "Jack Kerouac crossed by Henry James."
SOURCE: "Some August Fiction," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1983–84, pp. 742-54.
[Pritchard is an American author and critic. In the following excerpt, he calls Dubus's portrayal of the everyday lives and secret agonies of ordinary people perceptive and realistic.]
As for Andre Dubus, whose fourth collection of short fiction [The Times Are Never So Bad] earns him the title of seasoned veteran, one would not wish him to be at all other than he is. Which is also to say that he has not "developed" from the best work of his first collection, Separate Flights, of eight years ago. That book, like Dubus's subsequent collections, opened and/or closed with the stories that constitute his best work: "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "Separate Flights," from the first book; "Adultery," from Adultery and Other Choices; "Finding a Girl in America," the title story of his third collection; and in the new one, "The Pretty Girl" and "A Father's Story." To say that he hasn't developed is not meant as a complaint, since the first in line of these works, the novella "We Don't Live Here Anymore," contains in essence all he has to "say" about life: there is man, there is woman, there is marriage and children, there is adultery and separation (or reconciliation); there is running, there is coffee and bacon and smoking in the morning; there is beer, often paced by shots of tequila and whiskey, at night. There is also, more explicitly than before—in the final story to the new collection—a Catholic, wounded, guilty sensibility:
I have said I talk with God in the mornings, as I start my day, and sometimes as I sit with coffee, looking at the birds, and the woods. Of course He has never spoken to me, but that is not something I require.
This from the man who has kept silent about a hit-and-run accident in which his daughter was involved. Divorced, having learned to live alone, he discovers an aloneness beyond the one he thought he had learned to inhabit. Of course, the "point" of "A Father's Story," as in Dubus's other work, does not consist in some truth about life, or morality, or the individual talent. More than most contemporary writers of fiction, his work is its own reward: it feels something like an offering to whatever gods have allowed him to set down the burden of what he has to say.
Dubus writes as if Hemingway and Faulkner still mattered to an American writer, and this is refreshing and intelligent. To be sure, he is very much a Man's Writer, writing out of his sense of difference from the other sex in such an expressive way that the word "macho" is shown up for the cheap cliché it is:
… I've known a lot of women who didn't need booze or drugs or a workout, while I've never known a man who didn't need one or the other, if not both. It would be interesting to meet one someday. So I flex into the spray, make the muscles feel closer to the hot water, but I've lost it, that feeling you get after a workout, that yesterday is gone and last night too, that today is right here in the shower, inside your body; there is nothing out there past the curtain that can bring you down, and you can take all the time you want to turn the water hotter and circle and flex and stretch under it, because the time is yours like the water is … it's what you lifted all that iron for, and it'll take you like a stream does a trout, cool and easy the rest of the day.
With such sensitivity is this iron-pumper, assaulter of his wife and her lover, Hemingwayish dumb-ox, endowed. But the lead story which he begins as the teller of, has room for more than the inside of his poetic head, and it moves later to a third person treatment of his wife, Polly, the "pretty girl" of its title. Dubus is the sort of inclusive consciousness that cares about pumping iron but also cares about point of view. I can't praise enough his realistic sense of place and of things. Northwest of Boston, along the Merrimack, all that Catholicism and beer and sex and guilt. It is Jack Kerouac crossed by Henry James, and the result is a unique American talent which I hope continues to prosper.
SOURCE: An interview in Thomas E. Kennedy's Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 90-123.
[Kennedy is an American author, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt of an interview originally published in the February 1987 issue of Delta and based on conversations and correspondence between Kennedy and Dubus during an eighteen-month period of time in the mid-1980s, Dubus discusses his characters, his works, and the writing process.]
[Kennedy:] Contemporary American fiction seems to me to harbor two basic kinds of writer and critic: those who hold that fiction is about people and events, and those who hold that it is about language and perception and imagination. Writer-philosopher William H. Gass has said, "That novels should be made out of words and merely words, is shocking really. It is as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber." You, on the other hand, seem to care very much, even tenderly for your characters. Frederick Busch has said that your characters "are bent beneath a weight that Andre Dubus, one feels, would bear for them if he could—their utterly plausible and undefended humanness…." Do you think of your characters, in a literal sense, as people?
[Dubus:] Yes, I think of my characters in the literal sense as people. They make me cry when they do things I wish they hadn't done. I remember having Peter Jackman, in "Going Under," in the shower for three days. I was worried about him. I wrote "Adultery" because Edith started getting my attention and saying, "Man you left me in a slutty mess [at the end of "We Don't Live Here Anymore"]; how about coming back and seeing how I'm doing?" Yeah, I think of the characters as people.
Do your characters dictate their own actions (as E. M. Forster said his did on the famous Passage to India), or are they galley slaves, as Nabokov claimed his were when asked this very question in The Paris Review some years ago?
They dictate their own actions and, boy, sometimes I am really happy with what they do and, other times, as with Polly shooting Ray ["The Pretty Girl"], I am disappointed. If Nabokov's characters are galley slaves, I might understand why; while having flu in Iowa years ago, I was reading Lolita, getting a hard-on, then I got well, and never remembered to pick it up again. I do not think any good writer has characters who are galley slaves. I don't like Camus's fiction, although I admire the man deeply, and his essays, but to me, his characters are always acting out his philosophy. I can't read Sartre's fiction or plays for the same reason. I prefer the essays. I think most of the act of writing is intuitive. I think the act of good writing is intuitive, but it comes from a very conscious intellect. That might be a trick answer. I always find fiction taking turns that I have not forseen, and do not understand, but I feel to be inevitable and right. When that doesn't happen, the story dies….
Sometimes I get the feeling your characters are victims of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett: In the thrall of cocktails and bluesy bar rooms and the guy or gal that got away.
Yes. A lot of the characters—that's a very good reading—are victims of the songs of the 40s and 50s. I think that music had a deleterious effect on a lot of us because it made many of us believe that marriage was not a beginning of a very difficult vocation, the most difficult one that we would undertake, but that it was in fact the happy ending, and that we would all dance happily through life and that those of us who lost a woman would indeed have drinks in the bluesy bar room and sing, "Set em up, Joe, I've got a little story you ought to know."…
Are the emotional problems of your characters caused by being in a confusing stage of social evolution where traditional marriage is breaking up faster than traditional bonding needs can evolve to the new social situation?
I think you're asking me to tell you that marriage is over, jealousy over, that all those feelings I have had since childhood have changed in the latter quarter of the twentieth century. I do not believe any of this. I see sexual love between two people who marry more as a deep and abiding friendship, a tolerant and forgiving friendship which also involves sharing each other's bodies. I believe the commitment to write and the commitment to love are so much alike. A friend of mine wrote to me after he read the manuscript of "Finding a Girl in America," and he said, "Hank has finally learned that loving is as hard and takes as much discipline and working commitment as writing does."…
In my opinion, you write startlingly well from the point of view of a woman. I'm thinking of Edith in"Adultery,"of Beth in"Separate Flights,"and of Miranda in"Miranda Over the Valley,"to name three. To what do you attribute this ability? Is the jump from one heart to another of equal distance whether from man to man or man to woman?
Nadine Gordimer, in her introduction to her selected stories, deals with this entire problem by saying that all writers are androgynous, and I believe it. I am stunned—and I am not putting you down, my friend—at how often I am asked in interviews how I can write about women, when I meet women all the time who write well about men, and I think the real answer to your question is, as you say, the jump from one heart to another is of equal distance whether from man to man or man to woman. I think that is the answer. There is something universal in all of us. Some female characteristics I would not be able to write about without asking a woman, but I've spent a lot of time asking women, and I have always been interested in women. I have always enjoyed talking to women, I love women. If you are interested in a certain type of person, and you love the type of person, it is not that difficult to become them and write about them. I think I would have a lot easier time writing about a woman than I would, for instance, about a fictional Ronald Reagan….
Do you think of yourself as an American, at home in the American culture, in the daily life surrounding you, or are you alienated from it, or from aspects of it? Do you have faith in the political and social patterns of America?
Yes, I am American at home in the American culture and in the daily life surrounding me. I am alienated from aspects of it, especially in the direction that American politics is going—that is, nationalizing and sanctifying greed, but calling it something else. I do not have faith in the political and social patterns of America. I see the country getting more and more greedy and I deeply believe that if the country is going to continue to be based on greed and selfishness, that it doesn't really deserve to survive, but of course the victims of this greed and selfishness deserve to survive so what do you do about that? You can't have a revolution. The government has all the guns, and besides, my scant knowledge of history tells me every time there is a revolution, the mother-fuckers who take over do the same thing. I am absolutely in favor of socialized medicine or some sort of national medical care. I don't think anyone should be afraid to get sick. I don't think the poor should have rotten teeth in their mouths. I don't think our friend's baby should have died in Maine because she couldn't afford medical care. I am in favor of people who work at a place jointly owning that place. I guess that's socialism. I like two views—Tolstoy's, if you have a culture based on Christian values where each person is trained to help the other, then you will still have murderers and rapists, but you will not create any. We certainly create them. And I like what Einstein said in an essay that our education is all wrong, we should not be taught to compete; we should be taught to work for the common good.
You write a lot of stories about murder and violence—"The Pretty Girl," "Killings," "The Shooting," "Townies,"and in The Times Are Never So Bad, you use a Flannery O'Connor epigraph about how violence strips the personality to what is eternal. Is this violence a reflection of American consciousness, of your own, of both, or more of an attempt to reach that eternal vision of the human personality?
I think it is mostly a reflection of American consciousness. I think if I lived in Canada or Denmark, I probably wouldn't write much violence. One of my son's girlfriends was mugged. My twenty-one-year-old daughter risked her life because a person was pointing a gun at the window of a teacher my daughter was going to visit. Someone else very close to me was raped. And I can't read the paper, even the local one, without coming across violence. I see this country as becoming a very violent country and I react to it. I do not think my own consciousness is violent. The eternal vision of the human personality: Well, Peggy read me that quote from Flannery O'Connor, and I stole it because it was wonderful for an epigraph and is probably true in some cases. I think my attitude about violence is expressed in "Killings." As in "Man's Fate," the assassin comes back from stabbing this guy, and they are all talking about the wonderful new world they will have under communism, and he says, "What about me?" And you realize the act of killing has removed him from nature and the same thing with Matt Fowler in "Killings." Once he kills a human being, he has violated nature and is forever removed from it….
For five and a half years, you were a captain in the Marine Corps—a warrior artist. How did that feel?
If you mean by warrior some berserk blood-stained guy enjoying killing people, I never had that feeling. If you mean a professional soldier, that is what I felt like. I didn't want a war. As a young man, I wanted to live an active life and keep that apart from my artistic life. But I resigned from the corps because my father died. Only later did I realize it was my father's death that gave me the freedom to resign. My respect for him and my need for respect from him were not greatly diminished by distance and by age. I do not think I would have had the courage while he was alive to explain to him that I was leaving a good and secure and honorable, in those days, profession, and was going to take a family of one wife and four children to Iowa City for an assistantship of $2,400 a year….
Which of your contemporaries and which of the younger generation of writers do you read and find exceptionally good?
This is dangerous. I am bound to leave somebody out. There are so many. John Yount and Paula Fox, I think, are America's greatest living novelists. I think Gina Berriault is our greatest living short-story writer. I think Nadine Gerdimer is internationally a great short-story writer and an equal of Gina Berriault. I like Tobias Wolff, I like Raymond Carver. I like the galleys of the first book of stories I just read by a woman named Sharon Sheehe Stark (The Dealers Yard, 19851 The Wrestling Season, 1986). I like Susan Dodd (Old Wives' Tales, 1984; No Earthly Notion, 1986). I do reread Chekhov. I like a book of stories by Nancy Huddleston Packer called Small Moments, published by the University of Illinois Press which published my old friend Mark Costello's The Murphy Stories. Contemporaries. Contemporaries. I like Thomas Williams, Mark Smith, I like Kate Chopin, though she is not a contemporary. I like Philip Caputo. Not only for nonfiction (Rumor of War) but his two novels. I once tried to convince Dick Yates to read Caputo's novels, and he said, "Well, I don't read novels by journalists." Well, I don't either, I have a prejudice, but I told him Caputo's not a journalist. I found an old quarterly that no longer exists, I was going through it one night to see who was in there with me and what became of them, and there was Philip Caputo. He had some poems there, and the biographical thing said he was going off to Spain to write a book of poems and stories called A Rumor of War. My hunch is he made the right move in making it autobiographical. I like very much his second two novels. I am also a fan of Joseph Wambaugh. A lot of people raise their eyebrows at that, but I think he's the only man who can tell us what it is really like to be a policeman in a large city, and in his first novel—he has the Watts riot from the point of view of the police, and it is wonderful. He does contrive, he is clumsy, but to many novels I read contrive and I think it is one of the built-in flaws of the novel. But he is honest and good. R. G. Vliet, a book called Solitudes, is one of the best American novels I have ever read. Nobody knows anything about it. Matter of fact, nobody knows anything about Paula Fox or Gina Berriault either.
Are you a voracious reader?
I guess. I don't read as much as I want. I find that during the baseball season I tend to either watch or listen to the Red Sox. That's 162 games. I don't think I miss more than ten a year. I also find that sometimes when I am writing intensely, I don't have the kind of energy it takes to do good reading at night, and I will then turn to detective fiction which I do not think is a minor form. It just takes less literary intensity to read.
Which of your own fictions do you feel most satisfied with? Do you regret any?
I guess I'm most satisfied with "Adultery." I don't know if it's the best, but it took four hundred typed pages, seven drafts, seventeen months of work spread over maybe two or three years. And I tried to put into there everything I knew about God, death, and women, and marriage. You ought to by now open a beer and say, "So why didn't you use the cover of a matchbook, asshole? Postage stamp?" But I am most satisfied with it, I guess, because it threw me off the saddle so many times and hurt me, and I kept giving up.
"Going Under" did the same thing to me. I kept quitting it. I feel very good about "The Pretty Girl" which wasn't even as hard to write, but it was very draining. I feel good about a story called "Waiting," which came from a hundred-page novella which was no good, and the total time on that seven-page story was fourteen months. And I feel a certain satisfaction for a story called "Delivering" because on a Sunday afternoon, I was taking my daughter Nicole to her riding lessons, and I decided to do something I rarely do and that is make up a story. And I decided to write about a little boy and no more sensitive little boys like my autobiographical things, but a tough little boy—decided on the situation and the story was done, the first draft was done in five days, and it was just about complete. Since Voices from the Moon is fairly recent, I feel good about that, but I even feel maybe better about something I was working on last January  in Montpelier, a short novella of fifty-three pages called "Rose," which I think took more chances than a lot of other things I've done. I do not think I regret any of them. Some of them I don't like anymore, but that's because I was younger when I wrote them and could have done them better, so I don't put them in collections. I don't even regret The Lieutenant having been published. If I wrote that now, it would be a good hundred-page novella, but as it is, it is a weak two-hundred page novel, but there are real people in it so I don't regret it. If I regret, I don't send it off. By the time I send it off, I know I have taken it as far as I can, and there is really nothing more I can do with it. My only regret would be if I had been lazy or copped out….
How often do you write? And how much do you get done on a good day?
I write seven days a week when I am writing something. Not always. Things happen. Flu, colds. But that's my intention. Sometimes I intentionally take time off. Right now I'm working on a novella that I haven't worked on in over a week because I went to the University of Arkansas, but I was going to take a break from it anyway because I was starting to hate it, and the vacation has done me good. I'm ready to get back to it. A good day to me doesn't depend on the number of words, but on how well they got written. Many days if I get a hundred words I'll say that's fine. Other days I suddenly get two thousand. I probably average three to five hundred.
Each morning I start by reading the last page I've written which has been interrupted in half sentence, half scene, and I look at the words in the margin. They tell me where the scene is going, at least where it was going the day before; then I read from the beginning making small changes, but mostly I read from the beginning to get into the story. It is damn near impossible for me to just pick up where I left off because so much has happened from the time that I left off until the time that I have picked up again: dealing with the builder, the house, the phone, the child, hunting, having fun, drinking, who knows? When I write a novella, I only read the section that I am working on or else it would take two hours to finally get back to work. Then, when I finish that first draft in long hand, I tape it, and I listen back, and I think the taping is very valuable because as you can see, by then I have read much of the story or novella, some passages, hundreds of times. Reading them aloud makes me concentrate more, and then listening back points out very quickly to me repetitions, lines of dialogue that I don't need, rhythms that I should work on, and then with luck, I type the final draft….
I've heard various descriptions of the process of writing. Some say it is like feeling your way through a dark room, others like viewing a landscape in lightning. Hemingway, I believe, said that sometimes it is like drilling for oil, other times like mining coal. Strunk and White say it is "a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by." What is it for you? Meditation, inspiration, mining, drilling, trial and error?
First, I would like to add a quote by Updike that I like very much. He said it was like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights are showing you, but if you keep driving you'll get there. For me, it is less inspiration or meditation than trying to see what you are trying to write, working very hard, trying to find the words and the rhythm to go with it….
What is the objective of fiction? What is fiction's highest aim and greatest accomplishment?
I think the first objective of fiction is to give pleasure. That can be the kind of pleasure that makes the reader continue to turn the page, to want to find out what is going to happen. There are other forms of pleasure. There is the pleasure of insight, there is the pleasure of good company. I think that is the first objective. And without achieving that you can't get the rest. I think the next objective is through the pleasure to draw the reader out of himself or herself and take that reader into a search where both of you go in without knowing the answer. Look for some questions, watch some people dramatize the questions, live with those people and see if you and the reader can come up with an insight into the truth. That insight might be that there is no answer [chuckles], that insight might be terrible. So it is pleasurable, musical, enjoyable on a high level, and also sometimes on a level more prone to titillation, and in the process of this dance, we confront the difficulties of life and we try to understand, we confront mortality, we try to live other lives, to leap into the heart of another and understand.
SOURCE: "Andre Dubus: From Detached Incident to Compressed Novel," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 19-27.
[In the following critical assessment of Dubus's short stories published between 1977 to 1985, Yarbrough asserts that Dubus's fiction-writing talents are best showcased in his longer short stories.]
Andre Dubus has published two novels and four novellas, but his growing reputation rests most securely on his short stories. Those stories may, with some qualifications, be divided into three groups, based upon the way in which the stories are structured: closely related to structure, characterization is handled differently in each of the three types of stories.
In the first of these groups, the stories limit themselves to what Henry James called "the detached incident." Narration is straightforward. We begin at one point in time and move ahead until the incident that gives the story its life has finished taking place. Characterization depends solely upon the characters' responses to the incident in question. In Dubus's work, "The Doctor" and "The Dark Men" best exemplify this type of story.
The stories in the second group have no clearly defined beginning or end. The thread of the narrative may spin itself first one way, then, another. In the most characteristic of these stories, Dubus relinquishes purely narrative interest, giving away the outcome of events in the first few lines. The focus is not on what is going to happen to the characters; it is instead on what has happened to them, on what has made them the people they are. The narrative assumes the shape of a circle. Examples of stories in this group are "Townies" and "In My Life."
The majority of Dubus's short fiction falls into the third category. Most of the stories in this group are compressed novels. Several years, or even several decades, of a character's life may be packed into one tight paragraph. However, the same might be said of stories in the previous group. But the stories in the third class differ from those in the second in two important respects. First, they tend to be much longer, and the extra room allows a heavier reliance on scene—as opposed to summary—than a shorter story does. Second, whereas the stories in the second group have no recognizable beginning or end, the stories in the third group do. They are narratives in a more conventional sense. We are led to believe that something important is going to happen to the characters; and while we do examine their pasts, we also see them responding to events in the fictional present. Notable stories in this group are "Separate Flights" and "The Fat Girl."
"The Doctor," in the collection Separate Flights, illustrates Dubus's ability to draw characterization from the isolated occurrence. The story is brief, about 2500 words; it has a simple plot. Art Castagnetto, an obstetrician who lives in a rural community near Boston, goes jogging one quiet Sunday morning and encounters disaster along the way. A slab of concrete has tumbled off the edge of a bridge and trapped a child beneath the shallow waters of a brook. While Art struggles vainly to lift the slab, the child drowns. The following morning, troubled by a vague but nagging memory, Art returns to the scene of the accident and makes a discovery: in the yard of the house that stands near the bridge lies a coiled garden hose; had he cut off a piece of the hose and placed one end of it in the child's mouth, the child would have been able to breathe until the slab could be lifted. He walks home, takes his pocketknife out, cuts a section out of his own garden hose, and places it in the trunk of his car.
Through careful use of detail, Dubus sets the scene for the tragedy that will, in one small way, change Art forever. The morning on which the accident occurs has signaled the beginning of spring. He has put away his sweat suit, preferring to jog in shorts and tee-shirt. Running down the road, he enjoys the freshness of the morning, breathing "the scent of pines and, he believed, the sunlight in the air." The brook, frozen all winter, has now begun to run clearly. The sights of the first warm Sunday of the year are all welcome: a mile or so past the bridge, he sees a family sitting at their picnic table reading the paper; a bit farther he sees a young couple washing a Volkswagen, and they look at him and wave. "All up the road it was like that: people cleaning their lawns, washing cars, some just sitting under the bright sky; one large bald man lifted a beer can and grinned."
When Art turns and starts home, the peaceful morning is suddenly cracked open: "Then something was wrong—he felt it before he knew it. When the boys ran up from the brook into his vision, he started sprinting and had a grateful instant when he felt the strength left in his legs, though still he didn't know if there was any reason for strength and speed." At the bridge, he finds the child and fights to free him. As his efforts fail, a sense of incredulity overcomes him. That such a morning could be torn by tragedy seems unthinkable: "He refused to believe it was this simple and this impossible." Yet his strength is not enough. The morning turns ugly:
The sky changed, was shattered by a smoke-gray sound of winter nights—the fire horn—and in the quiet that followed he heard a woman's voice…. He turned and looked at her standing beside him in the water, and he suddenly wanted to be held, his breast against hers, but her eyes shrieked at him to do something, and he bent over and tried again to lift the slab. Then she was beside him, and they kept trying until ten minutes later, when four volunteer firemen descended out of the dying groan of the siren and splashed into the brook.
Art returns home and drinks all afternoon. Sitting in his backyard with his wife, he suddenly begins to cry. The next moming "an answer—or at least a possibility—was waiting for him, as though it had actually chosen to enter his mind now, with the buzzing of the alarm clock." He rises, walks down the road, sees the garden hose lying near the scene of the accident, then goes back home, cuts a section out of his own garden hose and places it in the trunk of his Buick. The story's concluding sentence nicely sums up what seems to be Art's dominant character trait; it also indicates the child's death will have a long-lasting effect on the doctor. "His fingers were trembling as he lowered the piece of hose and placed it beside his first-aid kit, in front of a bucket of sand and a small snow shovel he had carried all through the winter." Objects for use in routine emergencies fill the trunk of Art's car. But, whereas a scraped knee or an automobile halted by snow might be considered routine, death by drowning, in a shallow brook on a perfect morning, is anything but routine. The addition of the hose is an attempt to insure preparation for the once-in-a-lifetime crisis. Yet the experience has been so shattering for Art—who prides himself on being prepared—that it is unlikely he can ever again consider himself truly ready for all eventualities.
"The Dark Men," a story from Finding a Girl in America, is about an Office of Naval Intelligence investigation of Commander Joe Saldi, a Naval pilot currently stationed aboard a carrier. Saldi's friend and superior officer, Captain Deveraux, is visited by two ONI investigators, who acquaint him with Saldi's guilt (though Deveraux refuses to let them tell him exactly what Saldi is guilty of) and ask to see the pilot. Deveraux stalls long enough for Saldi, who as yet knows nothing of the investigation and is planning to go ashore, to leave the ship; then he tells the ONI men they will have to come back that night. Later the captain goes ashore himself, has Saldi located and brought to a bar. There the captain tells his friend of the investigation. That afternoon, when the ONI men return to the ship and ask for Saldi, Deveraux informs them that Saldi, in an apparent suicide, has taken his plane and flown out to sea. There has been no radio contact for more than an hour.
Deveraux feels animosity, if not outright hatred, for the ONI men. He is conscious of the contrast in appearance between himself and Saldi, on the one hand, and the ONI men on the other. Both Saldi and Deveraux spend time outside, in the sun, and their faces are healthy; they both wear Navy whites and openly display insignia of rank, as well as campaign ribbons, on their uniforms. Everything about the ONI men, in contrast, suggests blankness, anonymity: "Their faces were drained of color, they were men who worked away from the sun." They wear dark civilian clothes, and the captain feels that their dress defies him: "They were from the Office of Naval Intelligence … and although they called him Captain and Sir, they denied or outmaneuvered his shoulder boards by refusing to wear their own." The ONI men look "for the dark sides of other men."
Just as the last scene of "The Doctor" draws all the elements of that story together to form a single, clear impression of character, so does the concluding scene of "The Dark Men." Having already learned of his friend's final action, Captain Deveraux walks the flight deck, waiting for the return of the ONI men, Foster and Todd:
When they emerged from the island and moved toward him, walking abreast and leaning into the wind, he was standing at the end of the flight deck. He saw them coming and looked away. The sun was going down. Out there, toward the open sea, a swath of gold lay on the water. When they stopped behind him he did not turn around. He was thinking that, from a distance, a plane flying into the sunset looks like a moving star. Then shutting his eyes he saw the diving silver plane in the sunset, and then he was in it, his heart pounding with the dive, and the engine roaring in his blood, and he saw the low red sun out of the cockpit and, waiting, the hard and yielding sea.
"Commander Saldi is not here," he said.
"Not here?" It was Foster. "Where is he?"
Saldi's suicide is a slap in the blank faces of the ONI men. Deveraux's complicity in the affair allows him to share responsibility for the act of defiance. When he envisions the plane diving, streaking toward the sea, he manages to share further in the act of defiance by imagining himself in the cockpit.
Both "The Dark Men" and "The Doctor" render the detached incident vividly and invest it with significance. The narration in both stories is straightforward; there are no flashbacks. The scenic method is relied on almost exclusively in both stories. What we know about the characters, we know because of their responses to a single situation.
While narration is straightforward in those stories, it is anything but that in the stories that fall into the second group. "In My Life" is the story of a white woman, the first-person narrator, who has been raped by a black man named Sonny Broussard. The story both begins and ends with Broussard's execution. Sandwiched in between the beginning and the ending are the rape itself, an account of the narrator's failed marriage, and affairs with three different men. The story is only about 2500 words long. It can cover so much ground only because Dubus makes very effective use of summary.
In the following passage, the first four sentences summarize the narrator's marriage. The transitional phrase "one morning" signals the beginning of the scene in which the marriage actually ends:
It seems after you get to be twenty-five there's nothing but married men. I was married when I was eighteen, we had to, but I miscarried, and inside of two years I couldn't stand the sight of him. His name was Brumby, and I came to hate that name, and I would pronounce it hating. I'd say, "Okay, Brumby." One morning I woke up and he was gone. I went in the kitchen and there was a note on the table, with the salt shaker resting on it. I was grinning when I picked it up. It said: I'm sorry, I'll send money. Brumby. I laughed, I was so glad he finally took it on himself to leave.
The night of Broussard's execution is a temporal base that keeps Jill from seeming a disembodied voice wandering through events. Thoughts of the execution continually intrude, forcing themselves into Jill's consciousness and the narrative. All other events, even though they precede the execution, are viewed in light of it. The circular form allows the central event to remain dominant throughout. Dubus's skillful use of summary enables us to form a surprisingly complete impression of Jill's life—thus, the title of the story.
A story similar in design is "Townies." The first section of the story begins when an elderly security guard at a small college finds the body of a murdered coed lying on a snowy bridge one night. Instead of phoning the police or the ambulance, he kneels and strokes her cheek, his mind drifting back to the many times in his life when he looked at other coeds, young and attractive, and wondered what it would feel like to touch one of them. The series of flashbacks is framed by the old man's kneeling and touching the murdered girl. The section ends right where it began.
Section two begins with a man named Mike following a girl across campus. He overtakes her on the footbridge and, in a brutal scene, beats her to death. As he walks away after the murder, he too recalls incidents involving various coeds from the college. Like the security guard, Mike is a townie, but an unemployed one: he lives off the coeds that he manages to lure into sexual relationships. The dead girl was the most recent of his lovers.
Perhaps more than any other story Dubus has written, "Townies" renounces all purely narrative interest. The coed's death is divulged early, in the opening paragraph of section one; section two, which actually precedes section one chronologically, does not lead up to the girl's death but begins with it. What maintains interest is Dubus's deft examination of character. Each section probes a townie's response to the constant presence of the coeds.
The security guard's life in the town has been one of muted desire. He recalls, for example, a time when as a young man he saw a group of the girls standing on a street corner waiting for the bus to Boston:
It was a winter day. When he saw them waiting for the bus he crossed the street so he could walk near them. There were perhaps six of them. As he approached, he looked at their faces, their hair. They did not look at him. He walked by them. He could smell them and he could feel their eyes seeing him and not seeing him. Their smells were of perfume, cold fur, leather gloves, leather suitcases. Their voices had no accents he could recognize. They seemed the voices of mansions, resorts, travel. He was too conscious of himself to hear what they were saying. He knew it was idle talk; but its tone seemed peremptory; he would not have been surprised if one of them had given him a command. Then he was away from them. He smelled only the cold air now; he longed for their smells again: erotic, unattainable, a world that would never be open to him. But he did not think about its availability, any more than he would wish for an African safari.
Recognizing that they come from a different world, the security guard has always remained passive around the coeds. His first active response to their presence only occurs when he reaches out and strokes the cheek of the girl Mike has murdered.
It is ironic that Mike, who cares nothing for the girls, is able to have them at will. They are his meal tickets. He accepts money when they offer it; when they don't offer it, he steals it. Whereas the security guard has always been so keenly aware of the sight and smell of the girls, Mike is aware of what they own—their expensive clothes, their stereos, their Volvos. He hasn't limited himself to the girls: for twenty-five dollars he once agreed to go to bed with "the one college fag, a smooth-shaven, razor-cut boy who dressed better than the girls." The next morning he woke, looked at the young man's face, and wanted to kill him.
Mike's responses are all angry, and they all result from greed. The murder he finally commits results not from his anguish at losing a lover but from the bitterness he feels at losing the right to sleep in Robin's comfortable room, to spend her money and drink her liquor.
"Townies" is about closed worlds. Though Mike manages to work his way into the girls' beds, he no more fits into their world than the security guard would. It seems natural for the narrative to form a complete circle: just as the story ends where it begins, so does the life of a townie.
The stories in the third group are not so quick to relinquish the power of suspense. None of the stories has a complicated plot, yet Dubus does work to elicit concern for what is going to happen to the characters. While he examines the characters' pasts, just as he does in a story like "Townies," he also presents an ongoing action. The result is a group of compressed novels.
One of Dubus's finest stories is "Separate Flights," the title story in his first collection. Beth Harrison is a forty-nine-year-old grandmother who smokes too much, drinks too much, can't sleep, and has stopped believing in love. Her youngest daughter, Peggy, will soon be leaving their home in Iowa to attend a New England college. Facing the fact that in September she will be left alone with her husband Lee—whom she despises—Beth increases her drinking, and her frustration grows more intense.
The symbol of Beth's isolation is the separate flight. Whenever she accompanies Lee to a convention, he insists on their taking separate flights, so that if one plane crashes, Peggy will still have one parent left. But to Beth, this only means that she might die alone, among strangers. On one such flight, she meets a silversmith and toys with the idea of going to bed with him during their layover in Chicago, but nothing comes of it. For weeks after the flight, she lies in bed beside her husband and masturbates, tantalized at the thought of his catching her. As her life slides further out of control, Beth concludes that her best friend, for the rest of her life, will probably be booze.
In "Separate Flights," the narrative is tightly bound by Beth's perceptions. We see only what she sees. When Beth observes her daughter at a cookout, the description is filtered through her consciousness: "Then she looked to her right, at Peggy, her blue eyes made brighter by contact lenses, her cheek concave as she drew on a cigarette, faint downy hair on her face catching the sunlight." When Beth walks into the living room late one night and, flipping on the light, discovers Peggy making love to her boyfriend Bucky, she sees "Peggy's face hidden inside the dress she was shrugging into, and Bucky with his naked back turned, snapping trousers at the waist." The author of a work of fiction is never really absent from his story, but Dubus makes himself seem so throughout "Separate Flights." The strict third-person limited point-of-view forces us to share Beth's perspective, to feel the impact events have on her.
Flashbacks are an important tool in this story. They work well here chiefly because they are so skillfully woven into the narrative. An especially subtle transition occurs after a flashback that begins while Beth is talking with Robert Carini, the silversmith, on the plane. As she talks, she gazes out the window into "clouds so thick she couldn't see the wing behind her." The flashback begins in the middle of their conversation, takes us back to the airport lounge, where, waiting to board the flight, Beth has two drinks. When she gets on the plane, she meets Carini. They begin talking, and Beth soon finds herself revealing the facts of her stale life to the stranger, telling him things she has told no one else. The conversation she and Carini have at the end of the flashback overlaps the conversation that was taking place when the flashback began. We only realize the flashback has ended when we read "she was watching Robert's face; he suddenly squinted and she turned to the window: they had broken through the clouds into a glaring sky that was blue and clear as far ahead as she could see." The transition is effortless. The flashbacks in "Separate Flights" are all handled with the same ease. They provide brief but illuminating glimpses of Beth's past without disrupting the narrative flow.
Flashbacks are not such an important tool in "The Fat Girl," from Adultery & Other Choices. This story covers a period of seventeen years in the life of a fat girl named Louise, focusing on her battle against chocolate bars and peanut butter. As a child, Louise eats little at meals, and no one can figure out why she keeps growing. But Louise knows: she grows because of the four, five, or six chocolate bars she eats each night, she grows because of the peanut butter sandwiches she tucks under her shirt and slips up to her room. She continues to grow until her senior year at college, when her roommate Carrie talks her into dieting. That year she loses seventy pounds. She meets and marries a handsome lawyer, for whom she cooks lavish meals each night while starving herself to stay thin. But when she becomes pregnant, she rediscovers the joy of overeating and decides that her identity is bound to obesity, that being Louise means letting her appetite reign. Gluttony is her favorite thing.
Dubus uses summary passages extensively in "The Fat Girl." One advantage of summary is that when it is employed properly, it facilitates the passing of time. Dubus's summaries work well because they are full of concrete details:
It started when Louise was nine. You must start watching what you eat, her mother would say…. The two of them would eat bare lunches, while her older brother ate sandwiches and potato chips, and then her mother would sit smoking while Louise eyed the bread box, the pantry, the refrigerator. Wasn't that good, her mother would say. In five years you'll be in high school and if you're fat the boys won't like you; they won't ask you out. Boys were as far away as five years, and she would go to her room and wait for nearly an hour until she knew her mother was no longer thinking of her, then she would creep into the kitchen and, listening to her mother talking on the telephone, or her footsteps upstairs, she would open the breadbox, the pantry, the jar of peanut butter. She would put the sandwich under her shirt and go outside or to the bathroom and eat it.
Louise eats, time passes—and we see how far back the roots of her secret passion reach. Such passages help Dubus develop his character quickly.
He does not, however, rely exclusively on summary. There are several scenes which draw us closer for greater intensity. When Carrie asks Louise to diet, for instance, we move out of a summary passage into a brief but effective scene. When, near the end of the story, Louise and her husband Richard argue about the weight she has put on, there is again a scene. Dubus's sense of selection here is infallible.
The compressed novel seems to be the ideal form for Dubus. It allows him to probe more deeply into the characters than a story limiting itself to the detached incident can, and it allows him to forge a dramatic narrative, something the shorter, "formless" stories do not do.
A few of Dubus's stories do not fit neatly into any of the three groups. For instance, "Delivering," from Finding a Girl in America, focuses on a single incident—a woman's leaving her husband and sons—but Dubus uses flashbacks to fill in information about the characters' pasts. "Andromache," from Adultery & Other Choices, is a circular narrative—we learn in the opening paragraph that the protagonist's husband has been killed in a plane wreck, then 7500 words later we return to virtually the same point—but it differs from "In My Life" and "Townies" in that, after delving into the past, the narrative moves back toward the fictional present in a basically straightforward fashion.
Dubus's reputation is deservedly growing: his most recent collection, The Times Are Never So Bad, received enthusiastic reviews in such publications as Newsweek, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Book Review. Even those reviewers who have praised Dubus's work, though, while duly noting his ability to draw fully realized, complex characters, have tended to ignore the more technical aspects of his fiction. But it is precisely his mastery of narrative technique that enables him to convey his insight into character.
SOURCE: "Loners and Losers," in Time, New York, Vol. 128, No. 19, November 10, 1986, pp. 107-08.
[In the following review, Gray praises Dubus's skill as a short story writer and calls "Rose" a "classic American story."]
Forget the business about novellas and stories in the subtitle [The Last Worthless Evening: Four Novellas and Two Stories]. Author Andre Dubus' latest collection of short fiction contains six pieces, four of them somewhat longer than the other two. It is Dubus' main title that calls for scrutiny. The Last Worthless Evening is not taken from any of the works included in the book; it alludes instead to a passage from William Faulkner's The Bear that amounts to a dirge for man's despoliation of the New World. In the past, Dubus has called his collections names such as Finding a Girl in America (1980) and The Times Are Never So Bad (1983). Now, apparently, they are.
Indeed, there is more than enough gloom to go around these tales. Dubus, 50, has always written most effectively about loners and losers, people who, as the narrator of one story describes them, "move through life like scraps of paper in the wind." The tension in his stories springs from an ambivalent attitude toward such characters. Are they victims of circumstance or of their own inadequacies?
The question matters because Dubus insists that actions, however, dumb or careless, create moral consequences. Someone is to blame for wife and child battering, for drug abuse, for racial hatred, for crime, for the sense of dread that is "loose in the land." In "Land Where My Fathers Died," a lawyer in a small Massachusetts town takes on the case of a man accused of murdering a local physician, Archimedes Nionakis knows that his client is innocent. He also realizes that in trying to find the real killer, "I was going to confront nothing as pure and recognizable as evil but a sorrowful litany of flaws, of failures, of mediocre hopes, and of vanity." During the course of his investigation, Nionakis finds his already low-voltage ambition dimmed by the tawdriness he encounters around him. Knowing that his prosperous relatives wonder about him and his modest law practice, the lawyer decides, "I would not, could not, work twelve or eight or even six hours a day five or six days a week for any life this nation offered."
This statement lacks the demonstrable authenticity that appears so consistently in all of Dubus' fiction, including the stories in this book. Abstract critiques of U.S. society seem puny amid the welter of details and telling observations that the author provides. In "Molly," the title character, a 15-year-old girl, goes riding with her new boyfriend toward a beach on the Atlantic. She looks out the window at a succession of small, working-class houses: "In the faces of a group of teenagers who stood under a tree and watched her and Bruce passing, she saw a dullness she thought was sculpted by years of television, of parents who at meals and in the evenings had nothing to say to them, nothing to teach them."
People like this seldom make it into print nowadays unless they are lumped in with the latest unemployment figures or, even worse, written up in the police blotters of local papers. Dubus may have decided that such wasted lives are America's fault; he may even be right. But the case made by his fiction is far more complex and intriguing. In "Rose," a nameless middle-age narrator starts chatting casually about a fellow habitué of Timmy's, a neighborhood bar in a town, once again in Massachusetts, on the Merrimack River. Her name is Rose; she is disheveled, disreputable, and she has a past that she confides to her barfly acquaintance one snowy Friday night. The teller of this tale takes his time getting around to it, but it is a scorcher when it arrives: how Rose and a construction worker fell in love long ago, married and, being devout Roman Catholics, had three children in as many years. How, further, romance soured into a nightmarish descent into impoverishment and brutality. After years of dulled acquiescence to the growing horror around her, Rose musters the energy to strike back. She saves her children from disaster and, in the process, loses them to the legal system. Now, at a different bar, she says that she did not deserve her offspring. The narrator thinks differently: "She reentered motherhood, and the unity we all must gain against human suffering."
"Rose," by itself, is worth the price of this book; it is the most powerful entry in Dubus' impressive canon. Some decades down the road, enough justification will have cohered to call "Rose" a classic American story. And it is not, in truth, the product of a last worthless evening but of an artist in full control of his sympathies and skill.
SOURCE: "Poised for Fame: Andre Dubus at Fifty," in America, Vol. 155, No. 14, November 15, 1986, pp. 296-99.
[In the following excerpt, Feeney comments on the breadth of biographical, psychological, and social circumstances which have influenced Dubus's fiction.]
Blurbs and pictures on the dustjackets of his books seem to tell it all. He looks like a teamster or a bearhunter: solid build, bushy beard, blue cap marked "Captain," jeans with a wide leather belt. He is a baseball addict, was a Marine for over five years, carries an axehandle in his car trunk and has a strong social conscience. He calls himself a "cradle-Catholic," often attends daily Mass, has been married three times and likes vodka with pepper grains. He gives salty interviews, writes careful prose, creates superb stories and shows unusual insight into women and boys in his fiction. He has been awarded Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, dislikes James Joyce and has published stories in such places as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper's and The Sewanee Review. He is admired by Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, has almost a cult following and yet is not well known.
Yet a biographical sketch of Andre Dubus would not be complete without one more detail. On July 23, 1986, while being a Good Samaritan to a man and a woman who had been involved in an accident on Route 53 north of Boston, Mr. Dubus was himself seriously injured and spent his fiftieth birthday in Massachusetts General Hospital comforted by his wife Peggy and their daughter Cadence. Supported by his family, his friends and his faith, he is determined to continue his creative writing and not allow himself to be daunted by any physical disability.
Born in Louisiana on Aug. 11, 1936, and living now in bluecollar Haverhill, Mass., Andre Dubus (pronounced Duhbeusse) has sprinkled bits of his past in his novels, short stories and novellas. He writes about boyhood in small Louisiana cities, life in the Marine Corps (on an aircraft carrier, a Pacific island and West Coast bases), graduate school in Iowa, and college teaching, marriage, children and "Ronnie D's" bar in the Merrimack Valley near Haverhill. Out of this material he has already gotten nine books: first a novel, The Lieutenant (1967), then four books of stories, Separate Flights (1975), Adultery & Other Choices (1977), Finding a Girl in America (1980), and The Times Are Never So Bad (1983). Each of these collections included a novella—Dubus's best form. And these four novellas, interrelated by recurring characters, were published together in his sixth book, We Don't Live Here Anymore (1984). The same year brought Dubus's superb Voices From the Moon, a well-reviewed novel that views the same events from six different perspectives. In 1984, he also published, in limited edition, Land Where My Fathers Died, a thirty-seven-page detective story of multiple perspective that also appeared in the magazine Antaeus. Dubus's ninth book, The Last Worthless Evening (1986), is a collection of six short stories and novellas.
What does he write about? The best answer, I suppose, is marriages—their relationships, tensions and adulteries—and families, especially the children. Dubus is a careful observer, and his perceptions of human feelings, attitudes and reactions are unusually acute. Furthermore, as an artist, he can communicate these perceptions through carefully invented characters, situations, events, dialogues and phrases. Take as an example this description of a thirty-six-year-old man visiting his young lover in "Going Under": "In her purple sweater and pants she is lovely, and he presses his face into her shoulder, her hair, he is squeezing her and her heels lift from the floor, then he kisses her and breathes from deep in her throat the scorched smell of dope. He looks at her green eyes: they are glazed and she is smiling, but it is a smile someone hung there: Miranda is someplace else."
Dubus's fiction tells about the hope of love and the lack of love and the death of love. His characters wish terribly for lifelong love but, to their sadness, rarely find it; rather, in Dubus's fiction as in American society, all too many marriages and families fail. "All adultery is a symptom," he writes, and in his best work he examines the illnesses of American marriages and families and the underlying "failures of the human heart." In Voices From the Moon, he even describes a shattered family trying to formulate their own stumbling explanations for their pain and loss: "The trouble was love," or "It's divorce that did it," or "She had outlived love." In other stories and novellas certain characters are even able to foresee the collapse of love. In "Separate Flights," Beth Harrison, who has long stopped loving her insurance-man husband, muses about her young daughter: "Now her seventeen-year-old, Peggy, was in love and she liked to talk about her plans, with this grownup tone in her voice, and there was nothing to do but listen to her, not as you listen to a child who wants to be a movie star, but to a child whose hope for friends or happiness is so strong yet futile that you know it will break her heart."
The divorced fathers, too, grieve for their lost marriages and wounded children. In "The Winter Father," Peter Jackman remembers: "He and Norma had hurt each other deeply, and their bodies had absorbed the pain…. Now fleshless they could talk by phone, even with warmth, perhaps alive from the time when their bodies were at ease together. He thought of having a huge house where he could live with his family, seeing Norma only at meals, shared for the children, he and Norma talking to David and Kathi; their own talk would be on extension phones in their separate wings: they would discuss the children, and details of running the house. This was of course the way they had finally lived, without the separate wings, the phones. And one of their justifications as they talked of divorce was that the children would be harmed, growing up in a house with parents who did not love each other, who rarely touched, and then by accident. There had been moments near the end when, brushing against each other in the kitchen, one of them would say: "Sorry." And, in a passage I find hard to forget, the same Peter Jackman, with rueful humor, epitomizes the awkwardness of the divorced father who has visitation-rights every Saturday: "He thought of owning a huge building to save divorced fathers. Free admission. A place of swimming pool, badminton and tennis courts, movie theaters, restaurants, soda fountains, batting cages, a zoo, an art gallery, a circus, aquarium, science museum, hundreds of restrooms, two always in sight, everything in the tender charge of women trained in first aid and Montessori, no uniforms, their only style warmth and cheer."
Dubus can also be harsh in his honesty. In the novella "We Don't Live Here Anymore," the narrator, Jack Linhart, is having an affair with his best friend's wife, Edith Allison. As they are lying together, Jack recalls an evening when he and his wife Terry were with the Allisons and two other couples: "Once at a party Terry was in the kitchen with Edith and two other wives. They came out grinning at the husbands: their own, the others. They had all admitted to shotgun weddings. That was four years ago and now one couple is divorced, another has made a separate peace, fishing and hunting for him and pottery and college for her; and there are the Allisons and the Linharts. A deckstacking example, but the only one I know." The Edith tells him a truth about her husband, her daughter, and herself: "He needs us, Sharon and me, but he can't really love anyone, only his work, and the rest is surface."
"I don't believe that."
"I don't mean his friendship with you. Of course it's deep, he doesn't live with you, and best of all you're a man, you don't have those needs he can't be bothered with. He'd give you a kidney if you needed one."
"He'd give it to you too."
"Of course he would. But he wouldn't go to a marriage counselor."
It is with such harsh honesty, as well as with strong, sexually explicit language and a spare prose style, that Dubus avoids sentimentality. As a writer he has developed a distinctive voice: long clear sentences (usually compounds), vivid detail for physical objects, accurate description of human emotions and reactions, and understated, smoothly flowing sentences at moments of intensity. His language is generally simple and direct, but for accuracy he is willing to use the unusual or formal word: "impuissant," "misogamist," "Faustian." Though he occasionally uses humor and irony, his voice is usually serious, emotionally powerful and simultaneously sympathetic to, but distant from, his characters. His narration is calm, his dialogue good, his words carefully chosen and edited. At his best, writes Joyce Carol Oates, Dubus creates novellas that are "triumphs of voice"—a voice of style that has the quality of "unhurried precision."
Even Dubus's metaphors, though original and effective, have a certain dispassion to them: "Like a cat with corpses, [my wife] brings me gifts I don't want"; "His marriage was falling slowly, like a feather"; "He feels they are not at a hearth but are huddled at a campfire in a dangerous forest." In one short story, "The Pitcher," an unfaithful wife effectively uses the metaphor of her baseball-player husband as she tells him, "All summer I've been feeling like I was running alongside the players' bus waving at you. Then he came along."
Dubus often adds breadth and perspective by putting his individuals or families in some larger social, literary or religious framework. Some characters come out of themselves by meeting friends at Timmy's Bar; others look to books or plants or records (classical by day, jazz at night). Dubus's Marines find models of bravery in Corps legends, especially the heroes of the Chosin Reservoir. Some characters worry about friends or brothers serving in Vietnam; others feel concern for the blacks in the South or the poor on the streets of New York City. Another man in Voices From the Moon, the owner of two ice-cream stores, has an effective social conscience: he "was good to his workers" and "did not keep them working so few hours a week that he could pay them under the minimum wage"; he was even "planning a way for all workers, above their salaries, to share in the profits, and was working on a four-day week for his daily and nightly managers, because he believed they should be with their young families." (This was a man who had fallen in love with his son's ex-wife. Dubus's moral universe is never a simple one.)
Dubus also broadens his fiction's scope by literary allusions. He quotes a passage from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, takes a title from St. Thomas More (The Times Are Never So Bad), and at various moments refers to, or echoes, such writers as Conrad (Lord Jim), Hopkins, Hemingway, Balzac, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Kipling, Faulkner, Zola, Kate Chopin, Rhys, Colette, de Maupassant, even Joyce, as well as his great literary hero and teacher, Chekhov. For a writer who is at heart a realist, he makes surprisingly frequent use of Greek myth: one man, lying with his love in his arms, "kisses her until she warmly wakes and encircles him with her squeezing arms; he ascends; he is Prometheus; and he pauses in his passion to gently kiss her brightened eyes." Andromache, Oedipus and Icarus make their appearances, and in a celebration of fidelity Dubus uses Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and fertility, to comment on contemporary America. Musing about his friend Jack Linhart, who has stayed married despite mutual infidelities, Hank Allison thinks, "Jack is right. He's glad now they stuck it out. He and Terry. He said I've got a good friend who's also my wife and I've got two good children, and the three of them make the house a good nest, and I sit and look out the window at the parade going by: some of my students are marching and some of my buddies, men and women, and the drum majorette is Aphrodite … and she's leading that parade to some bad place. I don't think it's the Styx either. It's … some big open field with brown grass and not one tree, and nobody's going to say anything funny there. Nobody'll laugh. All you'll hear is pants and grunts. Maybe Aphrodite will laugh, I don't know. But I don't think she's that mean…."
Far more than to society, literature, or mythology, though, Dubus looks to Catholic belief and practice to broaden the perspectives and expand the framework of his fiction. Sometimes it is an occasional "O Jesus" or "Dear Jesus"; sometimes his characters pray or go to Mass or talk about "Holy Saturday"; sometimes there is a religious allusion in a Dubus title—"Contrition," "Bless Me, Father," "Sorrowful Mysteries," Other characters wonder about God's absence, like the wife who had lost her own faith during college and, thinking about her husband, "did not know whether Lee believed or not. She could not remember ever talking about God to him." There are priests and brothers in his stories, too, most of them good men and wise counselors. Many of Dubus's fictional boys go to Catholic schools (he, himself, attended a Christian Brothers' high school, where he wrote his first stories), and one young boy finds God through guilt: Having almost drowned a young cat, he "looked up into the rain at God." This does not stop the boy, though, from killing the cat the next morning.
As a moralist, Dubus values fidelity, truth, justice and innocence even as he vividly records the failures of marriage and family. His characters sometimes interpret their actions in terms of morality, and one or two of his people go through a process of moral reasoning in the pages of his stories (a dangerous practice for a storyteller, but Dubus keeps it under control). He will even try to redefine a moral term, to make clear that fidelity in marriage involves far more than sexual fidelity. This he does in "The Pitcher," as a wife talks to her baseball-player husband:
"It wasn't the road trips. It was when you were home: you weren't here. You weren't here, with me."
"I was here all day…. And all those times on the road I never went near a whorehouse."
"It's not the same."
Dubus also has a strong sense of the sacraments. His characters go to confession or to Mass—folk Masses, parish Masses, quiet weekday Masses. For one character, the Eucharist is a way to avoid loneliness, for another, a way to praise God, for a third, "The Eucharist is the sacrament of love and I needed it very badly those five years" during a bad marriage. And young Richie Stowe himself, in Voices From the Moon, wants to become a priest, even as, at book's end, he first experiences the appeal of the hair and arms and hand-touch of young Melissa Donnelly.
More originally, some characters manifest what might be called a "religious imagination," as they use some religious framework or story or phrase to interpret their own experiences or someone else's situation. One young white man from southern Louisiana reads of a black man, Sonny Broussard, who is to be executed for rape and sees his condemnation and death as parallel with Christ's. In another story a suburban housewife, though she has lost her faith, still "tried to pray. She wanted to fall in love with God…. Cleaning the house would be an act of forgiveness and patience under His warm eyes." One fifty-four-year-old father comes to love his daughter more in her weakness than in her strength, and realizes that here he resembles God, who loves us humans in our very weakness. And young Richie Stowe from Voices, almost thirteen and a daily Mass-goer, "felt always in God's eye," "knew God saw and loved those who suffered, yet still saw and loved him," and was certain that Christ had been in him when he finally forgave his parents for their divorce: "Everyone had to bear a Cross as Christ did…. Two years ago his mother moved out and then they were divorced and he [Richie] carried that one, got himself nailed to it, hung there in pain and the final despair and then released himself, commended his will and spirit to God, and something in him died—he did not know what—but afterward, like Christ on Easter, he rose again, could love his days again, and the people in them, and he forgave his parents, and himself too for having despaired of them."
These perspectives expand the world of Dubus's fiction and, together with his spare style, help to control the intensity of emotion and sentiment in his work. But, I should make clear, Dubus is not primarily a novelist of society or literary allusion or religion. His focus is always on his wounded people, with their complex lives and motives, their infidelities and violence and adulteries and "demons," and their unspoken hopes for forgiveness and goodness. Like Virgil, Dubus knows the lachrymae rerum—the tears evoked by human experience—and he unfailingly treats his characters with immense and deep compassion.
One more thing should be said: Andre Dubus is a careful artist and craftsman. He loves to write prose; he writes every day on a regular schedule, and lets his story "gestate for a long, long time." He never does an outline, and "usually begins with a 'what if.' An idea just comes to me." At that point he needs to know many details about his characters: "I make note of things that may never get into the story. I want to know if they believe in God; if so, do they belong to an organized religion? Ever since the Surgeon General's report on smoking I've thought it was important to know whether or not a character smoked, because it said something about a character … I make notes on the age, the family. The hardest part is to get the characters' employment. I have to find them a job, and then I have to find out something about the job." And when he is ready to write, he writes with great care. Once happy to produce one thousand words a day, he is now content with one hundred. Interestingly, he tapes all of his prose before completing it, testing his word-choice and sentence-rhythms by hearing as well as by seeing. Only then is he prepared to publish.
SOURCE: An interview in America, Vol. 155, No. 14, November 15, 1986, pp. 300-01.
[In the following interview, which took place prior to his debilitating automobile accident, Dubus discusses literary and religious influences on his work.]
[Samway:] What authors or works of literature have influenced you?
[Dubus:] Chekhov the most. I cut my teeth on Hemingway, not stylistically or thematically, but because I did a research paper on him as an undergraduate. I learned a lot about the craft, not so much from reading his work, but about his approaches to writing. He gave me advice: Do physical exercise after writing and forget what you have written; don't think about it; let your subconscious think about it; always stop when you're doing well; save the rest for the next day and stop in midsentence (I still do that). I've violated that rule twice in my career; I went ahead and got too excited and I finished the scene of a story. And you know, you live another twelve lives before you get back to your desk the next day—with interruptions by your family, your friends, your enemies and your bills. By the time I get back to my desk the next day, I don't even remember the story. Those two mornings after I violated that rule, I just walked up and down in the den all morning trying to remember what was supposed to happen next and attempting to get it in the story. It's wonderful advice. So I learned about writing from Hemingway.
Chekhov is the one that taught me to look more deeply, with more compassion and compression. Marvelous writer. I was writing my second novel when I read his story "Peasants." I was writing a novel that wasn't any good—just a bunch of scenes that anybody can put together. Something like some bad John O'Hara. I read "Peasants" one afternoon after writing and I thought that was strange; Chekhov said he couldn't write a novel because he couldn't write narrative, but in this story he's covered in thirty pages an entire year and dealt with both one family and one peasant village—a microcosm of most of Russian society after the freedom of the serfs. Now how did he do that? Then I reread it and it's all scenes, almost. And I saw how he wrote thematic scenes and compressed them into thirty pages and dealt with peasants, religion, booze, the innocence of children and their future as peasants. I threw away those two or three chapters and said, "It's time to learn how to write!" I began trying to learn how to write. That was in 1968 and I have been trying that ever since. And every time I read something great by Chekhov, I think, "Well, I've got a long way to go," which is the reason I keep doing it, I guess.
What about some of the Southern authors?
Faulkner—big influence. When I was younger, my inner thoughts were in Faulknerian rhythms. I never read Faulkner while I wrote. I still don't read his works while I'm writing. Only a couple of people I know have noticed some Faulknerian rhythms in my fiction. Richard Yates is one of them. Faulkner wrote action so well. He could create movement that is also suspended at the same time—and it's not slow motion. It's as though you can see each moment of the motion, but the motion is still moving, as in "Barn Burning" when Ab Snopes throws the rug on Major de Spain's porch, and Sarty Snopes is on the mule, kicking the mule, and Ab reaches out and pulls his hand back. Faulkner's rhythms show all the speed of throwing the rug and the rug thumping and the lights going on in the house and people coming down and the boy's fearful heart and the mule starting to move out. Faulkner has not really stopped the action because there is still motion going on. Perhaps the best example is in "Pantaloon in Black" when Rider kills the cheating Birdsong, who goes for his revolver as Rider takes out the razor to kill him; you get each detail of the movement—the razor blade in his fist and then its unfolding as it slashes Birdsong's throat before the blood even spurts. It's beautiful! I never tried to imitate that. I know that's where my long sentences come from and the focus on detail when I'm writing some action. I have also been influenced by Gina Berriault and Nadine Gordimer.
What about Flannery O'Connor?
No, she frightens me. I don't read her much. I wish I had never read that quote of hers where she said that she writes about sacraments that nobody believes in. Every time I read her stories I look for the sacraments and get lost in the story. A friend of mind gave me good advice, but I can't take it; he said, "Forget what Flannery O'Connor said, just read her stories." But I can't. I'm always looking around for baptisms and Communions. I wish she had never said what she did. I don't know. I have a story, "Miranda Over the Valley," which is full of Catholic symbols and allusions, and yet few have mentioned them in critiques of this story. On the other hand, I hoped nobody would because they were for me.
What about your own Catholicism? How important is that to you?
I think it pervades my writing, because for a long time I wrote about people who had no relationships with the deity since I was curious about living like that. But I have always been a Catholic. I think my Catholicism has increased my sense of fascination and my compassion. When I write about Catholics, I get very excited because there are a lot of ethical problems Catholics can get into.
Well, if a person is a real Catholic, almost anything is an ethical problem, and that person can either resort to the rules the person has been taught, such as the Ten Commandments, the Six Commandments of the church, or the person can move on to the New Testament and think about the ass being in the ditch. A Jesuit once said to me in high school: "You will never meet anybody who has committed a mortal sin. You have as much chance of doing that as you have of meeting someone who has committed a capital crime, because it is almost impossible to commit a mortal sin." Right? There has to be so much premediation; you have to be as cold about it as a businessman or a hit man, and most people don't do that. That's why I think seven years is not a bad sentence for most murderers, because most murderers are one-time murderers who kill a friend or someone in the family and would never do it again. I think most of them say, "Oh, my God," when they realize what they have done. Aren't ninety percent of our murders committed among family and friends?
Would you identify yourself as a Catholic writer?
Yes, always have.
What does that mean in terms of your writing?
Well, I see the whole world as a Catholic, so I can't help but see my characters through the eyes of a Catholic. The story I just finished, "Blessings" [printed in Delta], has, I think, a lot of religion in it, including secular sacraments. But, like many American families, these characters are not churchgoing people. The family in "Blessings" went through a good deal; there are a lot of blessings in the story.
John Updike said about Joe Ritchie in Voices From the Moon that the church still functions as a standard of measure. Do you agree with Updike's assessment?
Yes, I do. I still think the main problem with the United States is that we lost God and we lost religion and we didn't replace God or religion with anything of value. It doesn't bother me if people (including my own children) don't have religion, as long as they replace it with a philosophy. We are raising my daughter Cadence as a Catholic. I like very much what the young priest said when he had all the parents of the children to be baptized over to the rectory the week before the baptism: "You are raising your child Catholic in the same way you are going to feed your child certain foods. It is good for the child, and at a certain age the child may say, 'I don't want this,' but you have to start it with a certain nutrition." Now if Cadence finds another philosophy later on, then I don't consider her religious training a failure. I don't consider her lost—a spiritual loss. This country hasn't found any philosophy except money—and selfishness. I find the United States a very nonspiritual country, and I think that is largely the problem. In fact, we might need an enforced agape for survival, and in this way maybe people will be good again. I've seen the whole of my fictive world through the eyes of someone who believes the main problem in the United States is that we have lost all spiritual values and not replaced them with anything that is comparable. We just pretend all this. We never have been a Christian country. As a matter of fact, there never has been a Christian country. Has there ever been a country that didn't kill its enemies, oppress the poor and bring the strong and the rich to power? Well, it saddens me and angers me. Maybe that's why I'm fascinated by the mystics, those who transcend all that drowns me. The mystics remain in harmony with the earth and their fellow human beings and, yet, are above it all as they enjoy union with God. It's like an opera! It's beautiful!
SOURCE: A review of The Last Worthless Evening, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 23, 1986, p. 6.
[In the following review of The Last Worthless Evening, Seidenbaum asserts that Dubus's stories and novellas are detailed reflections of everyday life rather than purely fictional creations.]
Andre Dubus seems to have absorbed life rather than created it. His people, whether aboard an aircraft carrier or bending elbows at Timmy's tavern, have individual voices and separate hopes and particular tragic memories, but they also have a generic quality in common. Humanity is the easy word, probably the right one.
Dubus' people are neither celebrities nor scoundrels. Sometimes victims of circumstance and occasionally heroes of circumstance, they are wrapped in a reality each of us can recognize because the conversations and the contexts are so right. This collection of six stories [The Last Worthless Evening], four of them long enough to be called novellas, has moments of violent death, almost all of them surprising exclamation marks in lives otherwise hardly punctuated.
"Molly" is about the discovery of sex but more about mother-daughter relationships and the odd costs of being an accepting parent. "After the Game" is about a baseball pitcher who became paralyzed on the mound but is more about a man being lonely—in another land and language. "Land Where My Fathers Died" is about an accident that looked like murder but more about family loyalty and even love. Family is a major theme moving the people in these stories—the delight from it, the dangers in it.
"Rose" is probably the most ambitious story because the title character is an unattractive, uncommunicative woman who hangs out in Timmy's as a "silent partner"—a regular who rarely speaks, part of the bar surface but not the surrounding conversations. Her story, when she finally tells it, is of being abused and exploited, of being humiliated until the lives of her children were at stake—and then how she lost her children even while trying to protect them.
While Dubus' fiction copies the life around him, it may have infused his own life. I was reading the galleys for this book in Boston, on vacation in a hotel room. I was also reading the Boston Globe for my daily dose of world and local calamity. "Rose" has a paragraph about human relations, each to each:
"If there is damnation, and a place for the damned, it must be a quiet place, where spirits turn away from each other and stand in solitude and gaze haplessly at eternity. For it must be crowded with the passive: those people whose presence in life was a paradox; for, while occupying space and moving through it and making sounds in it they were obviously present, while in truth they were not: they witnessed evil and lifted neither an arm nor a voice to stop it, as they witnessed joy and neither sang nor clapped their hands. But so often we understand them too easily, tolerate them too much: they have universality, so we forgive the man who watches injustice, a drowning, a murder, because he reminds us of ourselves, and we share with him the loyal bond of cowardice…."
There was a story in the Globe one day about Dubus, how he had stopped at a violent roadside accident to help the victims, how his having stopped to be a good Samaritan—having refused to "stand in solitude"—caused another hideous accident. Dubus' leg was amputated. But he was pleased to be alive, to be able to continue his work.
He described himself in that story as a "minor writer." His own stories confute such public modesty. His fiction and his person are full of the goodness that men do.
SOURCE: "A Hero in the Worst of Us," in The New York Times Book Review, December 21, 1986, p. 12.
[Sigal is an American novelist and educator. In the following review, he analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of The Last Worthless Evening, pointing out Dubus's sympathy for his characters.]
In Andre Dubus's fine story "Rose," a nameless former Marine Corps lieutenant muses in a bar: "We like to believe that in this last quarter of the century, we know and are untouched by everything; yet it takes only a very small jolt, at the right time, to knock us off balance for the rest of our lives." That could be the keynote of the four novellas and two short stories in The Last Worthless Evening, dealing mainly with ordinary people whose common bond is a kind of ecstasy of despair, which can also be their source of strength.
Mr. Dubus's own strength—and weakness—is that he is compelled to tell his stories at an angle, from left field, sometimes through an unlikely narrator whose intrusive thoughts can divert and even blunt the natural rhythms of a tale. He is much given to emphatic spiritual pondering, as if he doesn't quite trust his characters to pull their weight. A pity, because Mr. Dubus's talent lies in his love and sympathy for people—petty criminals, baseball players, single mothers, drunks and addicts—who get their hands dirty with life.
Stripped of its fustian, "Rose" is about an alcoholic working-class woman who lives at the bottom of a glass but whose brutish self-hatred is redeemed by a single memory—the time she saved her two children from an apartment set afire by her insanely frustrated husband. The narrator, a former Marine, links this act of moral and physical assertion with an officer-candidate washout he once saw superhumanly lift a huge barracks locker while sleepwalking. Even the worst of us, Mr. Dubus seems to be saying, is capable of heroic selflessness under certain extremes of pressure.
When Mr. Dubus lets his stories speak for themselves they have an undeniable power and cleansing mercy. Yet he will interfere, indulgently letting his characters ramble on in a sort of lachrymose Higher Brooding. This almost ruins a potentially crackling story, "Dressed Like Summer Leaves," in which an eleven-year-old boy, casually dressed in camouflage trousers, triggers a Vietnam veteran into mauling him in a local bar. The boy's precocious ruminations caused me to lose confidence in the incident and its intent.
In perhaps the worst of these tales, "Deaths at Sea," about a white Cajun naval officer assigned a black bunkmate, the narrator tells the action through letters back to his landlocked wife in frequently clumsy, even purple prose, which muddies rather than enhances character. "So mine is not true loneliness, but closer to the love that saints feel for God: a sad and joyful longing. Like St. Teresa of Avila." Yet in the middle of this soggy saga of race guilt and accidental murder, there is a bracingly clear episode of pure action that reflects Mr. Dubus at his sturdiest. A sailor has dropped a high-explosive shell, bending the fuse pin and threatening the ship with catastrophe. A damage-control chief petty officer and his ensign defuse the shell with dry, direct movement that is a welcome relief from the fevers of the surrounding prose.
This disjunction between workaday action and finely embroidered sentiments is not to my taste. Yet Mr. Dubus's splintered vision can pay off handsomely. "Land Where My Fathers Died" is in effect a solid, somber murder thriller told from different points of view, set in a small Massachusetts town. Its hero, Archimedes Nionakis, is a second-generation Greek-American lawyer who, to save his skid row client, has to find the killer of a local doctor who specialized in exploiting fat and compulsively dieting women. Underneath his pretensions, Mr. Dubus is an action writer, laconic and exciting when he restrains his philosophic heavy breathing. Nionakis, who lives only to run in the annual Boston Marathon, could easily be the central figure in a series of genuinely offbeat detective fiction.
And, as if to confound criticism, Mr. Dubus's three-part novella "Molly," about a teen-age girl and her loving, permissive mother—both in a sense competing for life—is a stunner about the penalties and pride of consciously raising a child to sing her own distinctive song. "Molly" has many of Mr. Dubus's excesses of feeling and strained connections, yet it works because its emotional heartbeat is so insistently truthful.
SOURCE: "The Way We Live Now: The Fiction of Andre Dubus," in Book World—The Washington Post, January 11, 1987, p. 7.
[In the following review, Sullivan traces some of the common elements of Dubus's short fiction that appear in The Last Worthless Evening.]
In an age when short stories all too often mask human suffering with self-conscious cleverness, material clutter and bland irony, the short fiction of Andre Dubus is a tonic to the spirit. His characters usually feel their suffering, sound its depths, and talk about it, sometimes, expansively—and even share what they learn with the reader. They draw us directly into the burning center of their thoughts and feelings.
The Last Worthless Evening, Dubus' newest and perhaps finest collection of novellas and stories, has many of the elements his readers have come to admire since the publication of Separate Flights in 1975. Aching loss and disappointment are still dominant motifs; his characters are still lonely, ordinary middle-class people, most of them New Englanders or expatriate Southerners, many of them lapsed Catholics (although Dubus has Louisiana Cajun roots, he does not often write about the South); they suffer from insomnia, alcoholism, bad or broken marriages, and stultifying jobs.
In "Molly," the adolescent heroine sees in blue-collar children "some predetermined life, some boundary to their dreams, enclosed as tightly as their bodies were by their lawns and small houses." Teen-agers suffer "a dullness … sculpted by years of television, of parents who at meals and in the evenings had nothing to say to them, nothing to teach them." Molly's mother, who becomes a real estate agent after her husband deserts her, has plenty to teach, most of it disheartening. She has learned how much of themselves her clients "would give away for money or simply to avoid standing their ground … You could see in their eyes the cages they had built between their lives and their beliefs."
Yet the heroes in these stories have a way of breaking out of their cages. The mother summons a hidden "moral energy" and passes it on to her daughter to help her through her first sexual experience, even though by doing so she hastens Molly's growing up and leaving her. In earlier Dubus pieces, this sense of "a choice made with courage" was often not available. "Separate Flights," for example, features a similar mother/daughter scenario, with a bad rather than broken marriage as a backdrop, captured with a similar tenderness and exactness, but the story collapses into boozy self-pity, the mother denouncing the disappointment of love and marriage as a "farce" that "just happens" and "doesn't matter."
In this collection, love and marriage in America are still often a farce, but one that does matter, and characters continually resist, even if futilely the notion that life "just happens." The clearest exposition of the book's moral landscape is offered by the narrator of "Rose," who discovers each year, "with the awe of my boyhood, a part of the human spirit I had perhaps imagined, but had never seen or heard." In the narrator's grimmest but most inspiring story within a story, a young working-class woman who is so unhappy her heart has "ceased its signals to her" must suddenly defend her children against the murderous onslaught of her husband, a man who before going mad stares mutely at drying diapers "as if they were not cotton at all, but the whitest of white shades of the dead, come to haunt him, to assault him, an inch at a time, a foot, until they won, surrounded him where he stood in some corner of the bedroom, the bathroom, in the last place in the home that was his." The terrible violence that erupts in this story of entrapment is commensurate with the suppression that precedes it, and the mother pays an awful price for her action. But she does act, reentering "motherhood and the unity we must all gain against human suffering."
Since these stories have the rather unusual contemporary quality of being about something, and developing what they are about, it is easy to overlook their often quiet technique. Yet the book is full of magnificent writing. The descriptions of sexual initiation in "Molly" are both coarse and strangely beautiful; the dialogue of a genteel, condescending racist in "Deaths at Sea" ("The Southerner wants most of all to leave people alone … we know the Negrahs") is insidiously accurate; the descriptions of mental breakdown in "Rose," "After the Game," and "Dressed Like Summer Leaves" are terrifyingly precise; the portrait of compulsive female dieters and their hidden lives in "Land Where My Fathers Died" (an elaboration of Dubus' haunting earlier story "The Fat Girl") is heartrending.
That the obsessions of dieters is only a subsidiary motif in the latter story—which is basically about the arrogance of wealth and power—is characteristic of a new thematic richness in Dubus' work. Although he has said he writes stories rather than novels because he can deal with only one idea at a time, the longer pieces here are meditations on several inter-locking ideas. "Deaths at Sea," to cite another example, is a somber reflection on racial injustice, but it is also a meditation on the "true laughter," "true loneliness" and true friend-ship men experience at sea. Virtually every page in this collection plumbs unexpected depths, revealing another life being lived beneath a fragile surface.
"We like to believe that in this last quarter of the century, we know and are untouched by everything," says the narrator of "Rose," "yet it takes only a very small jolt, at the right time, to knock us off balance for the rest of our lives." Andre Dubus records these tiny, eternal jolts to our existence with unerring accuracy and eloquence, but the jolt he gives his readers is of another order. By confronting us with the way we live, or fail to live, he strikes at our moral passivity and complacency. In this period of gentrified fiction, that's a noble achievement.
SOURCE: "Going the Distance," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, January 20, 1987, pp. 50, 52.
[In the following review, Lesser observes that in The Last Worthless Evening, Dubus goes beyond the geographic and thematic boundaries that evolved in his previous fiction to explore wider social issues and that the length and pacing of a novella is uniquely suited to Dubus's style.]
With an author's first or second book, reviewers talk about promise; with a third or fourth, they speak of delivering on it. With his eighth book of fiction, Andre Dubus joins that small group of writers beyond the vocabulary of promise or even delivery—the ones who have settled in and are going the distance. In his previous story and novella collections, and his one short novel, Voices from the Moon, Dubus has carved out a territory recognizably his own: geographically, the towns north of Boston along the Merrimack river; thematically, a moral landscape of adultery, divorce, sexual searching, colored by an inescapably Catholic perspective on guilt and sin. Some of the stories in The Last Worthless Evening are set in that familiar Massachusetts town, with its ubiquitous neighborhood bars, its leather factory and small local college. Yet this new volume represents a departure for Dubus. His reach is broader here, taking in subjects from race relations to child abuse, baseball to Vietnam veterans.
As a storyteller, Dubus is protean in his sympathies. In "Land Where My Fathers Died," ostensibly a kind of detective novella, he uses shifting personae, moving with equal ease through the minds of the young Greek dishwasher who's walking home drunk on a freezing night and goes into an open office to find a dead doctor; the lawyer who runs marathons and sleeps with his college intern to silence the dissatisfied "little bastard" inside him; and the second generation Armenian high school girl who goes to the doctor for diet pills, and "wanted to be dead," she thinks she's "so fat and ugly." "Molly," the longest of the book's four novellas, explores the friendship between a single mother and her daughter—getting at the story, again, through more than one point of view. Dubus traces Molly's initiation into sex and womanhood with such sensitivity and confidence that it's hard to imagine a woman writer doing it any better.
The collection's powerful final novella, "Rose," unravels the story—told to the narrator at Timmy's, the bar where both he and Rose are regulars—of a family turned into a small hell by the father's violence. "I hate Jim Cormier," the narrator declares, "and cannot understand him; cannot with my imagination cross the distance between myself and him, enter his soul and know how it felt to live even five minutes of his life." And yet Dubus does go on to cross that distance, to bring the reader, for a few moments at least, inside the soul of the child beater, drinking beer and gazing "at the drying diapers, as if they were not cotton at all, but the whitest of white shades of the dead, come to haunt him, to assault him an inch at a time, a foot, until they won, surrounded him where he stood in some corner of the bedroom, the bathroom, in the last place in his home that was his. His quercençia: his cool or blood-smelling sand, the only spot in the bullring where he wanted to stand and defend, to lower his head and wait." You sense, on finishing "Rose," that even the darkest corners of the spirit are open to Dubus.
Developing the complex history required for the impact of a story like "Rose" demands more leisure and breadth than much of today's highly compressed short fiction affords; it seems natural that Dubus has turned more and more to novellas. The form is ideally suited to his method—the unhurried, meticulous accretion of gesture, observation, reflection. By the time you reach the end of his 40 or 60 pages, the last line hits you with the accumulated heft most often associated with the close of a novel. But Dubus can still jump right in and knock you out with a much shorter story. In "Dressed Like Summer Leaves," 11-year-old Mickey Dolan, on his way home from school in camouflage pants and T-shirt, passes by Timmy's bar just as a Vietnam vet Marine comes out for air and mistakes him for "Charlie." Mickey gets drawn into the bar and the haunted, volatile world of the veterans drinking there. By the time he escapes, shirt torn, to walk home "like a taitered soldier," he's seen and heard a good deal—in as tense and well wrought a 12 pages as I can remember.
In an age of quick-fix epiphanies, Dubus's style is unfashionably discursive. A treatise on Southern bigotry, or a digression on the nature of evil, might tempt the reader to say, "Shut up and get on with the story." But Dubus makes you want to listen. The man who retells Rose's story remarks, "We like to believe that in this last quarter of the century, we know and are untouched by everything." Andre Dubus knows a lot, and it has touched him deeply.
SOURCE: "The Progress from Hunger to Love: Three Novellas by Andre Dubus," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, February, 1987, pp. 2-9.
[Kennedy is an American author and critic whose Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction was published in 1988. In the following essay, Kennedy traces the theme of progressing from solitude to love in three of Dubus's novellas.]
The fiction of Andre Dubus began to appear in the 1960s, a decade whose leading new writers were anything but realists. To the sixties, the very concept of an objective, comprehensible reality was suspect, a house of lies hammered together of truisms, party promises, and straight-faced socio-political lunacies, a place as contrived as the linear fiction so many of the decade's writers sought to escape.
Overloaded perhaps with the quotidian gore of foreign war and domestic strife being spewed forth daily by the media, many American fiction writers began to retreat to more purely imaginative realms, testing, pushing at the accepted technical limits of their craft. The decade was invaded by the variety of Latin American magical realism and ficciones, the Barthelme jump-cut, the Cooverian replay series with variations, the Hawkes time shuffle, the Burroughs page shuffle, the Barthian anti-illusionist illusion. It was a decade whose best-selling novels depicted American society as a madhouse run by a madwoman or kinked by a catch clause, whose heroes were a wild nihilistic Gingerman, an epic Onanist, a computer-assisted goatboy; a decade when William H. Gass pronounced absurd the views of fiction "as actually creative of living creatures"; a decade whose novels took the form of psychoanalytic rants climaxing in lengthy primal screams, of cold-blooded facts fleshed into bloody fiction that followed real-life killers to the gallows, of subjectivized journalism parading as instant historical novel; when even an established realist like Malamud was fictioning birds that talked and artists that debated with the devil over the form and content of a hole in the ground. In the years to follow, a "new fiction" and a "superfiction" would be proclaimed which, in retrospect, seem less "new" than reactionary, in a non-pejorative sense of the word—a rejection of the form which had evolved in the immediate past century to hearken back to techniques closer to those of subjective-romantics such as Hawthorne or Poe or to the absurdist strategies of Gogol or the earlier experiments of Sterne. The story of manners—developed to fine subtleties and nuances by Flaubert, Chekhov, and James, who used the intricacies of human behavior as metaphor for the drift of movement of the spirit, making their abstractions from the mystery in which human beings daily live—was largely rejected as insufficient to deal with the immediate political pressures seen to be stifling the spirit of humanism.
And people just plain wanted something new. They wanted out of the realm of logic, linearity, cause and effect, and into the world of the imaginative literalist, where meanings deeper than logic dwelt.
Into this environment came Andre Dubus, ex-Marine Corps Captain, pursuing a master of fine arts degree in the mecca of American university writing programs, his hair unruffled by the burgeoning wave of post-modernism. While writers like Barth, Barthelme, and Coover set about the quest for a new, perhaps more complex grasp of reality, an overview, Dubus set quietly, indefatigably forth in his fictional exploration of what human beings do to one another in the pursuit of love—not overview, but close-up. From the start of his literary career, Dubus has written about the world, the real world in its own terms through a strategy of literal verisimilitude. His stories fulfill Goethe's two-century-old definition of the story as concerning itself with an event which might really have happened though it went unreported.
John Updike has said that Dubus beat the neo-realists to it by twenty years, but Dubus's fiction is neither "K-mart realism" nor "hick chic;" there is a kind of lush spiritual core to his work which seems not present in the work of so-called minimalists like Carver.
Perhaps the most lucid keynote of Dubus's work is found in his "If They Knew Yvonne," published in 1969 and selected by Martha Foley as one of the year's Best American Short Stories. The story follows the struggle of a young Catholic to find his way out of the via negative into which he has been thrust by the Brothers and back into the word with his Faith intact; the journey finds its completion in a line from St. John, in which Christ prays to the Father, "I do not ask that You keep them out of the world, but that You keep them from evil."
This is a problem central to the fiction of Dubus. How to live out one's part in a material world with spirit intact, if not unscathed by evil? How to negotiate the via affirmativa of human society without being spiritually poisoned by it. How to live well, to grow well.
Unlike, say, Barth, Dubus leaves the process of solving his technical writing problems on his desk; the only problems addressed by his stories are directly human, moral ones. The world of Dubus's fiction is one in which the word sin again becomes valid, for it is a world in which men and women are responsible for their actions—and their inaction ("The Pretty Girl"), capable of wrong and perhaps also, therefore, of right, capable at least of seeking to avoid evil, at the very least of regretting the evil for which they are responsible and, in their commitment to this, of approaching love, communion with the God who gave to men the new command: to love one another.
In an age obsessed by sexuality, the complex reality which we lump under the word love seems largely to have been relegated by contemporary culture to soap opera, song lyrics, and growth psychology. Much of the fiction of human relationships—Roth, Fowles, even Updike—seems to focus more on the physical and passionate hungers concerned with the individual's relation to himself and his own personal survival and freedom than with the further reaches of communion embodied in the concept of love. Perhaps this is due to despair of finding a grasp of the concept at once functional and profound; perhaps to fear of venturing from the outposts of cynicism to which contemporary western man has been delivered; perhaps to the absence of an objective spiritual frame of reference capable of housing it. Dubus doffs the armor of cynicism for an examination of the vulnerable spirit.
In the fiction of Andre Dubus, love is treated in a direct, unashamed way, devoid of cynicism or dark laughter. It is as natural and sustaining an element as air or water. Without it, the spirit shrivels, demons of madness are unleashed ("Going Under"), priests lose contact with their Faith ("Adultery"), mothers and fathers lose contact with one another ("Separate Flights," "Molly"), and with their children ("Rose"). With it, Dubus's characters know pain, but also come to understand both the distance from and closeness to the beloved and to experience sacramental moments of communion, "the sad and joyful longing of love the saints feel for God" ("Deaths at Sea"). Yet even love, even a love of pure motive, has consequences and effects which are ambiguous, which exact a price of the purity at the core of the individual human heart. Thus, the father who covers up his daughter's hit-and-run crime in "A Father's Story" must admit to himself, "I love her more than I love truth," and it is a hard moment for him—one whose consequences touch the remainder of his life.
As the body of Dubus's work grows to reveal its greater patterns, his treatment of human love becomes even more clearly a spiritual direction away from the hunger concerned with the individual's relation to himself toward those further reaches of communion.
The hunger of Dubus's characters to transcend the solitude bounded by their flesh is where their progress toward the communion of love begins. Examples of this theme can be found in every one of Dubus's nine books of fiction.
Perhaps nowhere in his work is that progress more completely rendered than in the three novellas on which this essay focuses: the first about a marriage which devolves from passion to pity; the second about an act of adultery purer than the marriage it degrades; the third about abortion and responsibility.
The major focus of all three is on two couples: Hank and Edith, Jack and Terry. Hank is a writer, Jack a teacher. They are friends, colleagues. They run together, drink together, and wind up sleeping with each other's wife. Both marriages were a result of unplanned, youthful pregnancies prior to the liberalization of abortion.
While each of the novellas stands alone, the three together are a distinct entity whose central character proves to be Hank; it is finally in Hank's consciousness, in the third novella, that the deepest vision of what happens to the two couples comes to bloom, though this final vision would not achieve its fullest impact without the preliminary visions presented in the first and second novella via Jack/Terry and Edith/Joe Ritchie, respectively. Hank's presence is central to all three, even where he is off stage, but in the third, all of the characters' experience culminates in his liberation from cynicism.
The first of the three novellas, "We Don't Live Here Anymore," (collected in Separate Flights, 1975, and in We Don't Live Here Anymore, 1984), is told in the first-person voice of Jack Linhart, who is "surrounded by painful marriages that no one understands. But Hank understands his, and I think for him it has never been painful, the pain was Edith's." (Hank's pain is to await another death, in the third.)
Jack is Edith's lover. She sought him out because she was hurt that Hank had cheated on her with a French exchange student. Jack feels cheated by marriage itself; his wife is a sloppy housekeeper and has a violent temper, and he no longer desires her. He regrets the passing of his youth, yearns to fall in love, get drunk, have a fight in a bar. The first optimism of his love affair with Edith has him think, "I will love them both," wife and mistress, but clearly his conscience (or as Terry puts it, "his cold, guilty face") will not permit this duplicity for long.
Interestingly, Jack is less honest with his wife, on the surface, than Hank is with his. He keeps secret his affair until he can maneuver Terry into an affair of her own, denying her suspicions until they are both in the same boat of guilt—and even then he waits a while. Hank, when confronted with Edith's direct question of whether he is having an affair with "that phony French bitch," answers simply: Yes. When she begins to question him about it and about what it means, he warns her that she had better be as tough as her questions because he intends to start answering them. Jack, on the other hand, sculpts his conversations with his wife, selecting details to avoid problems and realizes that he has "lost all dedication to honesty." Likewise, making love to Terry, he thinks of Edith, then immediately projects the dishonesty into her mind and suffers the resultant isolation in the midst of intimacy. Edith, too, looks at Hank and thinks of Jack and concludes to herself that "it is all lies now." Jack yearns for romantic love, but disdains marriage, feels trapped. Coming home at the end of the day seems like a journey to "some nebulous goal that began as love, changed through marriage to … respectable survival …" A happy marriage seems to him as unlikely as "a happy tiger in a zoo." If Jack is trapped in his marriage, Hank uses his as a place to relax from his adventures: "… he moved out from it on azimuths of madness and when he was tired he came back. While Edith held to the center she had been hurt … Now she had a separate life too and she came home and they sat in the kitchen with their secrets that were keeping them alive …"
At one point, Jack worries whether Hank knows about him and Edith, but experiences an insight into Hank's thoughts—that he knows and doesn't care: "Edith can't touch me and you can't either, what matters here is what matters to me." Hank displays his cynicism as a virtue: "It doesn't even matter if you love (your wife)," he tells Jack. "You're married. What matters is not to hate each other, and to keep peace … You live with a wife, around a wife, not through her …"
Jack's discontented yearning and Hank's contented cynicism seem equally expressions of hungers to satisfy the self.
Of the four adults in the first novella, Terry alone identifies the essence of the longer progress they have set out upon. Towards the end, she comes home depressed from an evening of "sordid, drunken adultery" with Hank and accuses Jack of hating her. He denies it; she demands:
"How would you know if you hate me? You don't even know me. You say, 'You are what you do.' But do you really believe that? Does that mean I'm a cook, an errand runner, a fucker, a bed maker … a Goddamn cleaning woman … You just love someone who looks like me … you love the tricks … the fucking and spaghetti sauce …"
Only at that point does Jack come out with the truth. His response to this incisive clarification of what is wrong? He says, "I love Edith." Terry is angry, hurt, confused, but determines to be loyal to her love for Jack, to serve it with herself—ideas that we see verbalized in the second novella, where Joe Ritchie defines love as "a series of gestures of escalating and enduring commitment." Alone of all four characters in the first novella, Terry takes on this commitment to another person.
Finally, Jack does not leave her. He stays, out of pity. By now everything is out in the open. Jack feels awkward knowing that Hank knows, but Hank—who has completed a new book during the time Jack and his wife were having their affair, says, "I ought to dedicate my novel to you … You helped get it done. It's so much easier to live with a woman who feels loved." Again, Hank's cool distance, Jack's guilty conscience: selfish motivations from opposite poles of the ego.
The novella closes with a scene of Jack and Terry's now passionless life together—she loves, he does not—while Hank takes up with a nineteen-year-old girl, and Edith has an affair with another man. The ending seems one of rather grim acceptance; there is something pitiful in Terry's determination to win back Jack's love and something depressing in Jack's fatalistic acceptance of his life with her. Yet what is the alternative picture? Hank and Edith's impending dissolution; Hank's cynicism; Edith's desperation. The story is finished, but not yet complete.
In the second novella, "Adultery" (collected in Adultery and Other Choices, 1977, and in We Don't Live Here Anymore), Hank and Edith begin not only to experience the consequences of the passions for which they have taken down the walls of inhibition, but also to learn of a wiser love, the mystery which occurs—as Edith's lover, Father Joe Ritchie, puts it—with "the leap the heart of man takes toward the heart of God"—or towards the heart of another human being, "the series of gestures with escalating and enduring commitment" which is Ritchie's definition of love.
The adultery in this book is not that of Edith's affair with the fallen-away priest, but the general adulteration of her marriage, of the love between her and Hank who have ceased to be Miltonian "fit, coversing mates." Father Ritchie does not experience his love for Edith as a sin; he only fears it might be a sin as long as she is still involved in her poisoned marriage; were she to leave Hank and marry him, the priest would feel at peace with God again.
In this novella, Dubus follows the direction of Edith's spirit—her disconnection from the daily tasks of her life which she began to experience when she learned of Hank's infidelity—his philosophy of infidelity—and "she could no longer find his heart … Watching him talk she saw his life: with his work he created his own harmony, and then he used the people he loved to relax with. Probably it was not exploitative. Probably it was the best he could do … Death stalked her now—as though let in by the breach opened by Hank's adulterous heart."
Death. Both love of God and love of man or woman in Dubus's fiction are necessitated finally by the awareness of death. Without love, that awareness is unbearable, life a dimension stalked by demons. With love—with the act of love and the commitment of love—"our bodies aren't just meat … they become statement, too, they become spirit," as Father Ritchie expresses it. In "the leap of the heart to God," heart to heart, a transubstantiation takes place which lets us transcend our isolation and brings us to terms with time and mortality—the quotidian agonies with which conscious man must live.
This, finally, is what Edith learns in the second novella. Finally she is able to release herself from Hank, from their marital charade. After she leaves Joe Ritchie at the hospital, dying of cancer, she comes home to bed; Hank reaches for her, but she resists him. He tries to insist, to override her grief with his passion, and she tells him that they are all dying—not only Joe, but Hank and herself, too, and that that is what they had lost sight of. She gets out of bed, then, and returns to the hospital to sit by Joe's bed, waiting for him to wake once more so she can tell him that she will leave Hank, for she wants him to know that their love has given her that strength.
In "Finding a Girl in America" (published in the collection of the same title in 1980 and in We Don't Live Here Anymore), the irony at last is that an unwanted pregnancy in the first novella trapped Hank prematurely into a marriage from which he sheltered his ego with cynicism, while here an unwanted abortion, more than a decade later, visits him with pain that flays the last hide of cynicism from his spirit, leaving him in torment. This time he is alone. Edith, having re-experienced love with Joe Ritchie, has become strong enough to leave Hank, to dissolve the adulterated marriage—the point at which "Adultery" ended. Now, alone, Hank is taking up with one young girl after another, each of whom leaves him after a year or so. Deprived of the grounding of his marriage and homelife, he is hurt and vulnerable. From his latest girl, Lori, he learns that the one before her, Monica, had been pregnant by him and had an abortion without ever having let him know. Hank rages, weeps, falls asleep to dream about the dead fetus being boiled to death on the beach while he lays alongside his daughter in the sunshine.
Throughout the remainder of this third novella, Hank is haunted by the dream, and his potency deserts him before that image of the dead, boiled fetus on the beach. The image recurs in his brain and is suggested in the landscape: a stranded lump of kelp—viewed out of the window of a restaurant where he sits enjoying the sight of his daughter nourishing herself on beefsteak—becomes a dark suggestion. Finally, Hank realizes that he is no longer capable of, no longer desires an act of copulation which is not fully motivated by the will to take full responsibility for its consequences. Here we follow Hank's progress to the ultimate comprehension which he has been equipped to reach only by Edith's having cut him loose from his cynical mooring to his home. There is an interesting parallel between Joe Ritchie in "Adultery" and Hank in "Finding a Girl in America": both hunger to expose their souls, the priest in his sermons, Hank in his writing. The priest finally recognizes his hunger for what it is: the loneliness at his core focusing outward: "He realized now that beneath his sermons, even possibly at the source of them, was an abiding desire to expose his soul with all his strengths and virtues and weaknesses to another human being … a woman."
Similarly, in the third novella, Hank at one point cannot understand why a woman he is involved with does not express an interest in reading his fiction; he feels her lack of interest as a lack of interest in that which is best in him, his reality. Both these yearnings are expressions of the hungering ego seeking to transcend itself: Joe Ritchie's hunger leads him from celibacy to the love of another human being; Hank's, in the last of the novellas, also finally turns his thoughts away from himself. His hurt at the woman's indifference to that deepest part of himself inspires him to grieve for Edith, for what she had suffered when she was with him: "the loneliness of not being fully known." Grieving here for another's pain of loneliness, Hank has come a long way from the man of the first novella who could chuckle that he was freed to complete his novel because his best friend had abated Edith's loneliness for him, made her feel loved.
Finally, this is a Hank who has learned to suffer—and more importantly to empathize with the suffering of others—not that there is virtue in suffering, but that, as the novella's Saint Exupery epigraph suggests, "Sorrow is one of the vibrations that prove the fact of living," and to be indifferent to the sorrow of others is to choose the solitude from which our unimpeachable passions hunger to be free. This Hank is tormented by an abortion and in love with a nineteen-year-old girl who is trying to learn how to live well and to avoid the promiscuity and cynicism about love she feels her sisters are developing. Hank now sees his own daughter growing up. He sees the promiscuity of the young as a drain on their possibilities, as trapping them into temporary episodes of loveless monogamy which limit their experiences of friendship with others in a way far worse than his generation had been trapped by the unwanted or perhaps merely untimed pregnancies. He sees that Jack and Terry's marriage has outlasted Jack's restless desires and begun to thrive again, has grown to a family, that Jack now cherishes Terry as a friend.
Here, then, finally, at the end of "Finding a Girl in America," Hank sees the end place of the egoistic desire which has characterized him through the first two novellas, and that place is "death and solitude." Love without responsibility is love without communion. It ends in death and solitude. He has transversed the maze of hunger and come to its belly, a place where the freedom reached is "the wrong freedom"—a freedom from human company, entry to solipsism.
The freedom that these four characters began to grope toward in the first novella—primarily Jack and Hank, whose egos needed it most, but also Edith and Terry, for whom perhaps the progress is more clarification of what they already know than development—was a freedom from the self, a freedom sought in desire and passion and achieved finally, as best it can be, by recognizing the consequences of the solipsistic yearning upon one another, and themselves, a point at which the envelope of human solitude opens to the possibility of human communion.
SOURCE: "Taking a Chance on Pathos," in The New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1988, p. 7.
[In the following review of Selected Stories, Hoffman suggests that everyday objects, circumstances, and relationships transcend the ordinary in Dubus's fictional explorations of love and its corruption.]
Emotional veracity is surely one of the most elusive elements in fiction. Just how do we decide that we trust a writer's voice? The sound of authentic feeling is different for each writer, and it cannot be easily parsed; and yet it is what determines whether we decide to put ourselves in an author's hands, or to balk at even the most brilliant insights or the most touching incidents or the most unexceptionable views. Andre Dubus is a writer whose work depends almost entirely on the persuasiveness of that sound. He consistently forgoes cleverness, formal rigor and any number of special effects. His note is a fragile one, and is sometimes too closely adjacent to the sentimental. And yet, when he hits it right, the cadences of that unverifiable but convincing truthfulness give his writing a simple and surprising power.
Mr. Dubus, who lives in Haverhill, Mass., is the author of a novel and six previous books of short fiction. He has been a quietly appreciated literary presence for over 20 years; his Selected Stories (most published elsewhere between 1975 and 1988) reminds us how much of a specific, unmistakable place he has come to carve out and occupy. Geographically, the fictional Dubus country is situated north of Boston, in the rural hamlets and unpresumptuous small towns of the Merrimack Valley. Spiritually, it is a place distinguished by its unvarnished and illuminated ordinariness.
We are accustomed, in today's fiction, to characters who are wretched, or disconnected, or down and out. But Mr. Dubus's people don't even have the glamour of poverty, or neurotic despair, or ennobling restlessness. Their occupations are of the near-invisible sort: they own ice-cream parlors or work as bartenders or waitresses, or are college students of the middling kind or college teachers of undefined tenure status. There tends to be something pre-postmodern in their indifference to worldly success, in their resistance to clocks and office regimen and schedules. ("She regarded [the clock] as … a conscience run on electricity," it is said of the protagonist in "The Pretty Girl," "and she was delighted, knowing that people had once lived in accord with the sun and weather, and that punctuality and times for work and food and notwork and sleep were later imposed upon them, as she felt now they were imposed upon her.") What matters to them most are not the temptations of upward mobility, but their dilemmas as wives and husbands and fathers and lovers.
It is in these usually hidden lives that Mr. Dubus finds his material—and his drama. For despite the unprepossessing privacy of his characters, a typical Dubus tale usually turns on, or builds toward, a highly dramatic, often violent situation: a father who vows revenge for his son's death and who achieves it, in its ambiguous sweetness, through murder ("Killings"); a young woman who has been raped by her husband and who is driven, eventually, to pull the trigger on him ("The Pretty Girl"); a woman who is having an affair with a former priest and who decides, as she prepares for his death from cancer, to end her open and false marriage ("Adultery").
But the immediate interest of these short stories and novellas resides not so much in the explosive premises and the detonating endings as in the concrete, sensuous detail, in the patient stitching of modest observation. Nothing is too humble for Mr. Dubus to notice, and his even, unjudging tone pays no heed to pretension, or to knowing snideness. People in these stories flip pancakes and dress in parkas in the morning, pour bourbon and worry about what young people are doing to themselves with drugs, and proffer and accept signs of affection without the benefit of irony or self-irony, or even self-consciousness.
Lacking stylishness or skepticism, or sharp wit, Mr. Dubus's people are endowed with a forbearing acceptance that comes close to both passivity and a kind of knowledge. They are allowed to live out their natures, and their fates. The protagonist of "The Fat Girl" lets herself, after a long interval of heroic thinness, go to fat again with a triumphant luxuriance, as if fat were her destiny. Others move along the trajectory of their longings toward grief or love or moments of vision with a hypnotic and unconflicted certainty.
Especially toward love. Now that one has an overview of two decades of his work, it is evident that love is at the center of Mr. Dubus's fictional morality, its presence the greatest virtue, its corruption the only sin.
The word "sin" is pertinent, for many of the characters in these stories are active Roman Catholics, and their belief in the redemptive powers of human love derives directly from their religious faith. In "Voices From the Moon," a priest has this to say to a 12-year-old boy who is trying to reconcile himself to the frightening discovery that his father is about to marry his older brother's former wife: "Think of love. They are two people who love each other, and as painful as it is for others, and even if it is wrong, it's still love, and that is always near the grace of God."
To speak about matters of sentiment with such unadorned forthrightness is to take considerable risks, and in its reaches of sympathy, as well as in its resolute plainness, Mr. Dubus's fiction has a certain daring. His range of characters is wide: young marines in basic training facing the first test of their endurance, and middle-aged family men who want to test themselves no more; young women trying to decipher their own hearts, and mothers who know the futility of trying to convey what they know to their sons. His protagonists are divided nearly equally between men and women, and despite the almost defiantly traditional views voiced in these stories on the matter of gender ("it was womanhood they were entering, the deep forest of it, and no matter how many women and men too are saying these days that there is little difference between us, the truth is that men find their way into that forest only on clearly marked trails, while women move about in it like birds"), Mr. Dubus has the courage to imagine women from within their subjectivity, and to do so with considerable understanding. He is not afraid to be utterly serious in his accounts of jealousy, or the pain of divorce, or filial attachment. He makes us feel the full force of family passions.
He is particularly fascinated by the love between fathers and daughters, and there are several such bonds in these stories which are almost disturbing in their intensity. In "A Father's Story," one of the most forceful and disconcerting tales in this collection, a father chooses to save his daughter by covering up her crime, and possibly colluding in the death of a young man she accidentally ran over. A believing Roman Catholic, toward the end of the story he confronts his God. "I could bear the pain of watching and knowing my sons' pain, could bear it with pride as they took the whip and nails. But You never had a daughter and, if You had, You could not have borne her passion."
"A Father's Story" has enough momentum and sheer fervor to stay this side of pathos; but Mr. Dubus does not always avoid the melodrama that is the natural defect of his virtues. The thin line he walks becomes particularly tricky when he is negotiating questions of sexuality. The sensibility of these stories is warmly physical and erotic, but he relies too much on scenes of people engaged in tender congress. He is too preoccupied with virginity. Sometimes he substitutes a conventional response for the more strenuous work of the imagination. In "Rose," a story about child abuse, the episodes are horrendous, but the language of suffering is almost entirely and conventionally pathetic. Indeed, too often in these stories there is a disjunction between the extremity of the situations and the persistently compassionate tone; it is as if instead of confronting the sometimes troubling conundrums he sets up (is it really all right to murder your son's murderer?), Mr. Dubus prefers to let them dissolve in the amniotic fluid of his empathy.
But in his more effective stories—and those, here, predominate by far—the light of Mr. Dubus's acceptance is a source of clarity and of strength. His voice neither aggrandizes nor belittles, but it accords even the most mundane gestures and objects their exact, just dignity. Really, what he gives us is an unastonished account of his characters' puzzlements and desires, and those small moments in which momentous movements of the heart happen. In the process, he recovers their largeness and significance. Mr. Dubus is a writer who works within a well-defined sphere of concerns. But if you're willing to listen to the nuances of his music, you'll find that, in his own register, he has near perfect pitch that can transfigure the commonplace.
SOURCE: "Stories from Scratch at Triple Strength," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 20, 1988, p. 3.
[Eder is an American critic and journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987. In the following review of Selected Stories, he suggests that Dubus's fiction is sometimes marred by excessive writing.]
Like Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus sets his stories largely among the blue-collars and other Americans who confront impossible demands with narrow means.
Unlike the austere and finely voiced Carver, Dubus endows his constricted lives with large-scale emotions. Rage, lust, longing, violence and despair are painted with deep-hued, tumultuous colors in [Selected Stories] this selection of the author's work over the last 15 years.
In one story, a father whose son has been shot dead by the estranged husband of his girlfriend, kidnaps the killer, shoots him and buries him. In another, a wife stabs her husband to death after he has raped her, beaten up her lover, and set a circle of fire around the house where she is staying.
And in a third, a domestic brawl escalates after a man throws his young son across the room for interfering with his view of the television set. The boy's arm is broken. His mother smashes the television set. The husband sets their house on fire, nearly burning their two daughters to death. After rescuing them, the wife runs her husband over with their car.
Dubus is no minimalist.
What he is, is harder to decide. If he made spaghetti sauce—and from the many scenes in which someone cooks a meal as a kind of redeeming truce, one suspects he does—it would be intensely flavored, dark red, bursting with extra meat, and redolent of six different herbs. It would be savory and strangely wearying.
The passions and desperations are rendered so vividly that the reader is shaken, first, and then numbed. Sex is explosive, rage a choking sensation, sorrow is worse than dying, religious scruples are a burning agony. Not that Dubus would use such phrases. There is not a cliché in the entire book; and everything is made from scratch and at triple strength.
Dubus writes of the lives of those who are not quite at the bottom of the social and economic scale. They haven't given up yet; they are still struggling painfully. They have enough of the American Dream to dream it, but not enough to get a piece of it. They are chocked and desperate.
"Who's going to buy one?" screams the husband in "Rose" after his wife breaks the television screen with his beer bottle and runs to tend their son's broken arm. "It's the only … peace I've got."
Behind the horror of that grotesque cry, there is the pity. Class is a theme that recurs in these stories, many of them set in the depressed Merrimack Valley of northeastern Massachusetts. Dubus uses passion and violence, as Gorky and Dreiser did, to declare that the world is arranged to drive the poor mad.
How do you portray the life of quiet desperation, so that the desperation is not lost in the quiet? With great subtlety, as Carver does; but even then, the quiet can take over. Or else, by making the quiet scream. That is Dubus' method. Often it pierces us; often, it deafens us.
He is so extraordinarily, uniquely right about so many things. Nobody writes about fatherhood, for example, with such raging compassion. In "Killings," he makes us feel how sheerly unbearable it is for a father to have his son killed.
Like so many parents, the father had mourned his child dozens of times in his imagination—when he crossed the street alone for the first time, went skating, drove the family car.
And now, "all the fears he had known while they were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him in the head and swept him out to sea."
It is searing perception, that sentence, yet it cools even as it burns. The rhetorical wave image disperses itself. And the story's crowded step-by-step narrative about how the father and a friend abduct and kill the killer, is excessive. So it is in "Rose"; and in "The Pretty Girl," where the wife stabs the husband who has raped her and who comes back in the simple belief that she had enjoyed it.
It is not the outsize incidents that furnish the excess, though. Dubus makes an astonishing fictional case for them. What mars many of the stories—some of them potentially brilliant—is the excessive writing.
Like one of the fathers he understands so well, Dubus can't let his offspring go, trust it, and be silent. He tends to tell us so much about each of their lives, each of their emotions, each of their shifts and compulsions, that the gesture, tone and spirit are swamped by the author's voice. Evocation becomes an ornate accretion of detail.
Dubus' style can be a kind of cloud cover over an extraordinary landscape. Sometimes it altogether blots out his wit and passionate sense of the shapes of men's and women's lives in hard times. Sometimes, these show through dimly and intermittently. And sometimes, the view is unimpeded; and what a view it can be!
"Winter" is a discerning picture of the awkwardness of a divorced father with his two children. "Anna" and "Townies" are taut and ironic accounts of the divisions of class and wealth in a small town. "Delivering" is a splendid story of a boy who fights pain and takes responsibility when his mother leaves home.
By far the finest of the stories, almost a novella in scope, is "Voices From the Moon," It tells of the effect of two disruptions on the fabric of a family's life. One is the departure of the mother, Joan, after 27 years, to live alone in the same town and work as a waitress. The other is the decision of Greg, the father, to marry his oldest son's divorced wife.
It is an eventful story; there is love, anger and painful acts of growing in it. And yet it is oddly peaceful. Dubus has created a pond so still and crystalline that the lines of disturbance and reconciliation display their complex and graceful geometry.
The focus is the tender sensibility of the youngest boy, who works his way blindly into understanding. But the portraits of the other family members are vivid and memorable. The finest is of Joan. Her love "had died of premature old age," Dubus writes. She leaves "simply because she had outgrown, not so much Greg, as her marriage to him." The author evokes the spare and independent life she makes for herself; it is a stirring image of growing up while growing old.
"Voices" is told in a style that is partly purged. Dubus retains the warmth, involvement and elaborateness, but he lets air and light in, as well. It is one of his later stories; it would be nice to think that it promises a clearer, less impeded view of his formidable gifts in the work to come.
SOURCE: "Playing Out the Patterns of Sin and Grace," in Commonweal, Vol. CXV, No. 21, December 2, 1988, pp. 652-56.
[Breslin is an American author, educator, and Roman Catholic clergyman. In the following essay, he examines the influence of Catholicism on Dubus's fictional exploration of human relationships.]
"I am fifty-one years old, yet I cannot feel I am growing older because I keep repeating the awakening experience of a child: I watch and I listen, I write in my journal, and each year I discover, with the awe of my boyhood, a part of the human spirit I had perhaps imagined, but had never seen or heard."
Thus the narrator of "Rose," the concluding story in Andre Dubus's collection (1986), The Last Worthless Evening. At some risk to my critical credentials, I find that narrative voice remarkably close to its author's and revelatory of the imagination that stands behind a considerable body of work published over the past two decades. Dubus began by publishing a full-length novel in 1967 that grew out of his studies at the Iowa writers' school and, more to the point, out of his experience in the Marines. The Lieutenant has only recently come back into print, thanks to a small publisher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since 1967 Dubus has concentrated on shorter forms, stories and novellas of varying lengths, five collections worth, and a separately published short novel, Voices from the Moon. Whatever the form or the setting, however, the watching eye and the attentive ear are always in evidence, and with them the shock of discovery. Dubus picks his venues carefully, each reflecting his own lived experience: Catholic schools in Louisiana; the male-dominated world of the military; and, more recently, the Merrimack Valley north-west of Boston, an uneasy meeting point of town and gown amid the rubble of obsolete mills and factories. What they have in common for the reader is an assurance of authenticity, not just for the places, with their bayous or ward rooms or desolate winter roads, but more importantly for the troubled human beings—Dubus's stock in trade—who with their distinctive accents, prejudices, and graces, attempt to puzzle out the meanings of the lives they've been dealt and have frequently messed up.
A consciousness of sin permeates the atmosphere of these stories, which is not surprising in a writer who answers, "Catholic," when asked for a proper adjective to describe his work. Dubus accepts our flawed condition as a given, but he manages to view his characters' failings with a compassion that bespeaks an equal conviction that grace is powerfully at work in the world. In a number of stories this pattern of sin and grace is played out within a specifically Catholic setting, but just as often, the characters have no religious convictions or, at most, exhibit a vestigial sensibility of the divine in lives otherwise determined by an overtly secularized culture. But moral questions remain, questions shaped and colored by family values, ethnic heritage, military ethos, and intellectual training. And it is to these moral issues that Dubus relentlessly returns, exploring their demands and their paradoxes in the lives of middle Americans of the mid-twentieth century.
Take Dan Tierney, the hero of Dubus's first novel, The Lieutenant. Thrust into the command of the Marine detachment on an aircraft carrier, Lieutenant Tierney gets caught up in an attempt to save a weak young recruit from his perverted tormentors, only to find his efforts are futile against the engine of military justice and a naval captain's determination to clear his ship, and his command record, of any sexual taint. Tierney's insistence on following his conscience sabotages his own career.
Like many first novels, it is a story of innocence lost, and it suffers from the genre's neat moral divisions of heroes and villains. But it sounds themes that Dubus will pick up and develop in his later and more sophisticated treatments of military life. One of these is the deep resentment felt by regular officers against the faceless and powerful intelligence arm of the military, the "dark men" of a later story. In both cases they violate the unspoken covenant that binds servicemen together, embodying in its place the impersonal force of authority that values order above all else. Dubus's sympathies clearly lie with someone like Captain Devereaux who warns his pilot friend of the investigation into his personal life. The competing values are neatly summarized as the investigators stand with the captain on the flight deck of his carrier and he informs them that their prey is not on board:
"He's out there …"
"Out there?" Foster said. "You let him fly? In a million dollar …"
Captain Devereaux looked at him, and he stopped.
This subversive, anarchic strain runs through many of these stories, and not just the military ones. Dubus's characters are apt to take the law into their own hands to avenge or protect family or friend. He makes no abstract moral judgment on these tribal loyalties, and it is clear that the psychic price of such action comes high. As the man who has just murdered his son's murderer in "Killings" tells the story to his wife, "the words had no images for him, he did not see himself doing what the words said he had done; he only saw himself on the road." And later, as his wife sleeps besides him, "he shuddered with a sob that he kept silent in his heart." Whether or not the murder is even discovered, Matt has been marked, like Cain.
Perhaps the most powerful of these stories of private judgment—and Dubus's best in my estimation—is also one of his most explicitly Catholic. "A Father's Story," in The Times Are Never So Bad, gives us the first-person account of Luke Ripley, the divorced owner of a stable, who spends an hour early each morning in prayer and random reflection on his life before he rides off on one of his horses to the local church where, with his good friend Father Paul and a handful of others, he celebrates Mass. This daily pattern, Luke feels, brings him as close to his center as he has ever been, but he has no illusions about mysticism or holiness. In his awareness of the gap between intention and accomplishment he captures the genius of sacrament and ritual, the essence of the Catholic imagination:
But I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and the wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.
Into this calm comes the shock of family disaster. During her annual summer visit Luke's twenty-year-old daughter, Jennifer, accidentally hits someone with her car on a dark road and returns to wake Luke in the middle of the night. What he does, he does instinctively to protect his daughter. But the story is told retrospectively, and so at each stage—as he drives to the scene, finds the body, returns to tell her the boy is dead, and finally smashes the damaged fender into a tree at church—we hear as well his reflections, his awareness that efforts to spare Jennifer count also as sins against the boy and his family: "my first sin against him, not stopping for Father Paul, who could have given him the last rites, and immediately then my second one, or, I saw then, my first, not calling an ambulance to meet me there." Later still, he rehearses the confession he will never make to his priest-friend, because he knows he would not act on his advice to go to the police: "He will not hear anything of failure to do all that one can to save an anonymous life, of injustice to a family in their grief, of deepening their pain at the chance and mystery of death by giving them nothing—no one—to hate."
But what is most extraordinary about this story is its ending, and the risk Dubus takes in having Luke recount a dialogue with God from his morning reflections. Distinguishing between his sons and his daughter, he tells God he would have called the police if one of his boys had come to him, but would do again what he did for his daughter. "But you never had a daughter and, if you had, you could not have borne her passion." To God's further accusation that he therefore loves weakness, Luke responds. "As you love me," and heads out to saddle his horse for Mass.
At a reading Dubus gave of the story several years ago, a friend of mine heard him say that a young woman had told him, "Daughters have stories, too." That reaction echoed several I heard from women of various ages when I taught the story in class. They felt that Luke had done his daughter more harm than good in trying to protect her, but fathers of daughters also told me that even if they did not approve of Luke's decision, they understood it. Dubus has clearly touched a live nerve in our sexually egalitarian society; it is a tribute to the power of his writing, however, that the story is never mistaken for a tract. It remains Luke Ripley's narrative—credible, even sympathetic, because Dubus has made Luke that way.
In the later novel, Voices from the Moon, Luke Ripley turns up again, this time in a bit part as the stable owner on whose horses young Richie Stowe experiences a merging of body and spirit remarkably similar to Ripley's own: "He had learned to make his spiritual solitude physical and, through his flesh, to do this in communion with the snow and evergreens, and the naked trees that showed him the bright sky of winter."
Indeed, Richie is in many ways a twelve-year-old version of Luke; he, too, finds in daily Mass the same centering; and he, too, is caught up in a family drama, but one largely out of his control. What is tearing the Stowe family apart is the divorced father's decision to marry the ex-wife of Richie's older brother Larry—a plot line that skirts dangerously close to soap opera, and is only saved by Dubus's ability to give each of the characters involved an individual voice and a history that in conjunction make for a dialogue of generations. Family bonds, however, shredded by divorce, remain strong enough to lend credence to the mother's prediction that Larry and his father will eventually be reconciled.
Meanwhile, Richie is undergoing his own personal testing which provides the narrative frame for the novel. Coming home from Mass, in the first chapter, he meets Melissa Donnelly who smokes and seems otherwise worldly and alluring to the young priest-to-be. In the final chapter, after we have seen each member of the Stowe family at his or her most vulnerable, Richie goes out to meet Melissa for an innocent tryst that he imagines as a major temptation against his religious calling. But Dubus leaves the matter much more ambiguous in the novel's final words: "(Richie) saw in the stars the eyes of God too, and was grateful for them, as he was for the night and the girl he loved. He lay on the grass and the soft summer earth, holding Melissa's hand, and talking to the stars."
Certainly Richie's confessor, who early in the novel counsels the boy to have compassion and forgiveness for his father ("even if it is wrong, it's still love, and that is always near the grace of God"), would not see Melissa as a competitor to Christ. Dubus treats the demands of Catholicism seriously and refuses to reduce religious experience to good feelings, but just as firmly he rejects Jansenism and its world-denying instincts. Human love may be fractured, sometimes even a distorted mirror for God's grace, but it remains for us here and now the only glass to see through darkly.
Which brings me to a final group of three interlocked stories that appear in different collections. Dubus explores the permutations of human love in the lives of two couples joined and divided by friendship and sexual appetite. Here, too, Dubus risks the low comedy possibilities of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice by focusing his stories on the sexual tribulations of four middle-class inhabitants of a Massachusetts college town. Hank Allison and Jack Linhart teach together, run together, and genuinely think of themselves as each other's best friend. ("There are several men I love and who love me, all of us married, passive misogamists, and if we did not have each other to talk to we would probably in our various ways go mad.") But as the first story, "We Don't Live Here Anymore," opens, Jack is having an affair with Hank's wife, Edith, for which he feels the guilt of betrayal though he knows that Hank rejects monogamy in principle and has had numerous affairs with his female students. And by the story's end Jack's wife, Terry, has reciprocated by sleeping with Hank. These transpositions are important elements of plot, but the story is Jack's as he struggles to comprehend his own deepest drives and frustrations. What does it mean to be married to a woman who continues to love him when his own passion has died? Is being a father enough to hold such a marriage together? Jack shares Hank's doubts about the value of monogamy and is willing to experiment with an alternative, but he lacks his friend's deep cynicism: "There are two kinds of people, Hank said. The unhappy ones who look it and the unhappy ones who don't." In the end Jack decides to stay with Terry for reasons he intuits but can't express.
For the other two stories ("Adultery" and "Finding a Girl in America") the focus shifts to Edith and Hank, but without the first-person narration that made Jack Linhart both more puzzling and more immediate. Dubus uses "Adultery" as the title of the collection in which it originally appeared but wryly appends "& Other Choices." These three words suggest a subtle commentary on the moral issue behind the erotic entanglement, yet also turn aside heavyhanded moralizing. We become what we choose, Dubus insists, and nowhere more so than in our loving. For a while Edith believes she can accept Hank's philandering and match it; and he wants to believe that by condoning her affairs he will achieve a guiltless freedom. But Edith, like Jack Linhart, cannot finally separate sexual love from commitment, and when she falls in love with a forty-year-old ex-priest named Joe Richie, who is dying of cancer, she begins to realize the hollowness of her marriage.
Dubus divides "Adultery" into four parts, using the love story to frame Edith's reflections on her life with Hank in the long second section. The effect is to make of her deepening love for Joe a prism through which both Edith and the reader can perceive her need to act even though her choice to divorce Hank offers no consolation since Joe will soon be dead.
Joe himself is another of Dubus's overtly religious creations, a near relation of both Luke Ripley and Richie Stowe, who finds in the Eucharist a symbol and center for all his loves. Because he experiences something sinful in his relationship with Edith (though not the simple fact of adultery), he stops receiving Communion. Were she to divorce Hank and marry him, Joe would return to the sacrament. There is a casuistry here, but one of symbol rather than of law, that parallels Luke Ripley's bold concluding dialogue in "A Father's Story" with his daughter-less God. Joe, too, "loves in weakness," but the love proves strong enough to free Edith from Hank's loveless marriage arrangement with her. She recognizes that her ability to leave Hank is Joe's final gift to her, just as her announcement of it as he lies dying is her gift to him.
The conclusion of the trilogy is, fittingly, Hank's. "Finding a Girl in America" opens with him apparently in the midst of still another affair with one of his students: "On an October night, lying in bed with a nineteen-year-old and tequila and grapefruit juice, thirty-five-year-old Hank Allison gets the story." And it is not a pretty one. He has been, without his knowledge, the father of an aborted child from a previous affair. The image of that fetus haunts his waking and sleeping hours, forcing him to face the consequences of his own choices. "I don't want to have to say no to anything, not ever": the life philosophy he had enunciated for Edith when she first discovered his infidelities has borne this terrible fruit.
Coming to terms with that reality is the burden of the story, and Dubus nicely rounds off the trilogy by having us see Hank deal with it by turning to the central people in his life—Edith, Jack, his thirteen-year-old daughter Sharon, and Lori, the girl at the beginning of the story. Joined together by their daughter, Edith and Hank have achieved reconciliation in their divided lives, and she is able to offer him comfort in his grief as well as forgiveness. Jack tells him to marry Lori, and his encouragement has the added weight of someone who has refused to give up on his own marriage. Watching Sharon with Lori, Hank realizes that "he does not want her girlhood and young womanhood to become a series of lovers, he does not want her to become cynical and casual about making love. He does not, in short, want her to be like his girlfriends."
But he also knows that Lori is not like his other girlfriends, either. She may be the latest of his student mistresses, but by story's end he has determined that she will also be the last, and he asks her to marry him with all the trepidation of a young man courting his love. The circle has been completed, not so innocently, perhaps, as at the end of a Shakespearean comedy with all the young couples neatly paired off, but with enough resolution and reconciliation to give us hope, and some comfort for the pain suffered on the journey to self-knowledge.
The comic vision implied in this trilogy, and in Andre Dubus's work in general, is profoundly Christian, and, more specifically, profoundly Catholic in inspiration. Dubus looks at the world around him and sees sin and brokenness, but he refuses to despair. For behind the physical detail his eye so sharply sees and behind the psychological nuance his ear so deftly notes, he perceives a presence that understands and forgives us more generously than we do others and better than we can ourselves. For those characters with a sensitivity to sign and sacrament (Luke, Richie, Joe) that presence finds a local habitation and a name in the Eucharist where the mystery of God-in-flesh continues daily to play itself out. For the rest there are hints and guesses, mostly in moments of vulnerability when their deepest loves and loyalties are threatened: Edith at Joe's deathbed, Hank worrying about his teenage daughter, Captain Devereaux protecting his old friend. The grace that Bernanos's cure found to be everywhere and in everything often works strangely, even paradoxically, in a world hell-bent on denying its presence, but work it does, quietly and inexorably, not to save us from pain and suffering but to give them meaning by rescuing faith, hope, and love from our icy despair or lukewarm diffidence.
By watching and listening and, most of all, by writing, Andre Dubus continues to celebrate the human spirit in which it is possible, he insists, to see the power of God and God's grace at work. He is a writer who needs and deserves a wider audience. The recent bestowal on him of a MacArthur Fellowship acknowledges his achievement so far and will, I hope, gain him more attention as an important contemporary writer working within a rich Catholic tradition.
SOURCE: "True Confessions," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, January 17, 1989, p. 56.
[In the following excerpt, Lesser discusses the depth of characterization in Dubus's Selected Stories.]
"Rose" is an exceptionally intense and difficult story, but it isn't exceptional among the Selected Stories of Andre Dubus. Several of these nearly two dozen works take as their subjects "crimes of passion." Even when homicide isn't an option or issue, Dubus's fiction depicts a world of high personal stakes; the stories track characters in pain, in precarious transition, in extremis. An angry ex-husband takes to terrorizing his former wife, while she buys a handgun and readies herself to use it against him. A townie beats his lover from the local college to death after she's told him she needs to stop seeing him. A bartender looks helplessly on as a group of bikers gang-rapes a young woman, then grapples with his own guilt and shame. Perhaps this sounds like grim fare, and indeed Dubus is hardly a playful writer, he seems to figure there's no use in going for anything but the jugular. Most of the stories in this selection of close to 500 pages cut deep enough to leave you weeping or gasping for air, and needing to recover before going on.
In one story, a mother tells her son, "we don't have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we've got." Dubus's characters live in small, dying towns along the Merrimack River, waiting on tables and punching registers, drinking and smoking too much, losing or fighting to hold on to the tatters of love, or peace, or dignity. This focus on "little" lives is nothing unusual; what sets Dubus apart is how he goes at them. His short fiction plays by different ground rules than that of his contemporaries. Its power derives not from what goes unsaid, but from what is directly, shamelessly spoken. Dubus writes stories like a pilot pushing the envelope—continually testing fiction's affective limits, pressing up against that line that separates drama from melodrama, sentiment from sentimentality, pathos from bathos, and redefining it for an age in which the ascendant minimalism has been not only stylistic but emotional. Part of what makes Dubus so important is precisely this unfashionability. It's as if fiction writers aren't supposed to cry in front of us, but Dubus is not only crying, he's bleeding and blowing his nose.
Readers of Dubus's previous volumes (seven since 1975) won't be surprised at his preoccupation with shattered marriages and reconfiguring families. "The Winter Father" takes Peter Jackman through his first few seasons of postdivorce, weekend parenting. "Adultery" is seen through the eyes of Edith Allison, who rages against and then resigns herself to her husband's chronic, unabashed infidelity, begins to have affairs of her own, and falls in love with an ex-priest who's dying of cancer. Even more complex is the terrain charted by the book's longest work, "Voices From the Moon," in which a divorced father, Greg, announces his plans to marry his own eldest son's ex-wife, Brenda. Here, Dubus gives us the "voices" of all the players—Greg himself, awash in mid-life need and gratitude and confused love; Larry, stung with betrayal and enduring desire for the woman who, for three years, was his wife; Brenda, who unveils the perversity that poisoned her marriage to Larry; Joan, Larry's mother, resting from 27 years of marriage in an apartment in the next town; Greg and Joan's 26-year-old daughter, learning to see her father as a grown woman does; and finally, most centrally, Greg's youngest, 12-year-old Richie, who loves horseback riding and baseball and Melissa from up the block but wants to be a priest, and prays for "the strength of the saints" to resist "the temptations" that everyone in the family had succumbed to.
In Dubus's novella, you never get the feeling you do with so much recent fiction that relies on multiple viewpoints: that the author is working at performing an exercise, using different voices according to the dictates of some technical scheme but not always speaking convincingly. Dubus embodies each of his half-dozen characters with equal, seemingly effortless authenticity. It's a virtuosity that emerges even more impressively when you consider the Selected Stories as a whole. Rarely has the American male been so moving in his vulnerability as when "The Winter Father" drives to pick up his kids the first Saturday:
the snowploughed streets and country roads leading to their house felt like parts of his body: intestines, lung, heart-fiber lying from his door to theirs. When they were born he had smoked in the waiting room…. Now he was giving birth: stirruped, on his back, waves of pain. There would be no release, no cutting of the cord. Nor did he want it. He wanted to grow a cord.
And yet Dubus also gives voice to Ray Yarborough, who rapes his ex-wife at knife point in "The Pretty Girl"—effectively enough that by the end of the story, we can sympathize with the grief of the brother surviving him.
But Dubus doesn't only do men: he speaks for "Leslie in California," whose husband has beaten her three times, and who wonders if she'll "be one of those women"; for "Anna," who helps her boyfriend rob a convenience store, then watches how this does and doesn't alter their constricted lives; for the widow of a Korean War soldier in "Waiting," who leaves a lover in her bed late at night to find a sensual solitude, standing naked in the dark waves, "salt water black in her eyes and lovely in her mouth." I can't think of a single living American writer who gives equal time and depth to both sexes the way Dubus does, or who describes with such uncanny rightness men and women inside themselves, or observing each other across the bed sheets and barricades.
Dubus's sensual landscape is heavily Catholic. The adolescent boy in "If They Knew Yvonne" masturbates after school and at night, and goes to church to confess his "mortal sin" every morning; the young couple in "A Father's Story" practices the rhythm method, "nights of striking the mattress with a fist, two young animals lying side by side in heat, leaving the bed to pace, to smoke, to curse, and too passionate to question." The faith of Dubus's characters exists as an adversary to their natures, yet it also provides a dimension of beauty and profundity rarely present in current fiction. Young Richie explains that he goes to Mass every morning to receive the Eucharist "'because it's too big not to…. It's God, so how can I stay home? When He's there every day.'" Luke Ripley in "A Father's Story" also goes to mass every morning, though he "cannot achieve contemplation," and so learns "the necessity and wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love."
Catholicism doesn't simplify, but complicates the stories' moral universe; when Ripley's daughter accidentally kills a man driving on a dark road one night, he has to strike a difficult bargain with himself and his God. Dubus has been criticized for his discursiveness—for talking and philosophizing too much, and not trusting the action of his stories to do the work for him; but it's really the dozen pages of Luke Ripley's "talk"—about Catholicism, fatherhood, and his failed marriage—that gives the events that follow their astonishing impact.
Few characters in contemporary fiction talk as freely, seriously, or straight from the heart as Dubus's. They tell us stories, but more than that, they give us their lives; and the extent to which we get inside them is Dubus's greatest achievement. The narrator of "Rose" conjectures that "if there is damnation, and a place for the damned, it must be a quiet place." If there is salvation in fiction, it must come from a place where there are this many true voices.
SOURCE: "Master of Moments," in The New Republic, Vol. 200, No. 6, February 6, 1989, pp. 41-2.
[Tyler is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following review of Selected Stories, she characterizes the collection as "deeply rewarding" and Dubus as a writer who assumes moral responsibility for his characters.]
A woman and her grown son are sitting after hours in the restaurant where she works, discussing the son's unhappiness. The woman says, "You know why I like my waitress friends so much? And what I've learned from them? They don't have delusions. So when I'm alone at night … I look out my window, and it comes to me: we don't have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we've got."
A man struggling along on his own after his wife has left him reflects, "It is not hard to live through a day, if you can live through a moment. What creates despair is the imagination, which pretends there is a future, and insists on predicting millions of moments, thousands of days, and so drains you that you cannot live the moment at hand."
And a newly divorced father of two young children tries to adjust to solitude:
He separated his days into parts, thought about each one, and learned that all of them were not bad. When the alarm woke him in the winter dark, the new day and waiting night were the gray of the room, and they pressed down on him, fetid repetitions bent on smothering his spirit before he rose from the bed. But he got up quickly, made the bed while the sheets still held his warmth, and once in the kitchen with coffee and newspaper he moved into the first part of the day … as near-peaceful as he dared hope for …
These three—citizens, all, of Andre Dubus's sad, brave, gritty fictional world—have in common a heartening willingness to confront head on the conditions of their lives. There is nothing unique about the conditions themselves. Heaven knows, modern literature is full of lonely, muddled people in reduced circumstances, drifting (as many of these characters do) toward self-destruction on a tide of booze and violence. But most other writers are content simply to plop their characters in these straits and leave them there. Most other stories end, or rather, trail away, in a flat refusal to look beyond the fistful of pills, the black eye, the morning hangover. Andre Dubus is not so easily satisfied. He forces his people to question their situations, sometimes coming up with answers and sometimes not, but nearly always demonstrating conscience and intelligence. In short, he feels morally responsible for his characters, and it's this sense of responsibility that gives his work its backbone.
Selected Stories contains twenty-three pieces, two of which have never before appeared in book form. Longtime admirers of Dubus's work will be pleased to see that each of his many concerns is fully represented. "The Pitcher" and "After the Game" reflect his passion for baseball; "Cadence" draws upon his experience in the Marines; and "If They Knew Yvonne" and "Adultery," among others, reveal his deep Catholic roots. What's most important, though, is the overall effect. The storekeepers, bartenders, construction workers, short-order cooks, and housewives in these stories are so lovingly detailed, their inner worlds so thoroughly explored, that we close the book with the feeling that we've finished a group of novels—rich, teeming, bountiful novels at that.
In "The Pretty Girl." which is perhaps the most stunning piece in the collection, a ruffian named Ray rapes his estranged wife, beats an ex-lover of hers to a pulp, and surrounds her house with a circle of flames. It would be hard to imagine a character more despicable. Yet when he shows up in her bedroom one night, there is something bewildered and wounded and, yes, even likable about him. "I just want to talk," he says, and, "What did I ever do anyways?" and, "No, come on: what did I do?" The story calls up the most complicated emotions. It's an unblinking story; it refuses, absolutely, to screen out the messy other side of things, the stray doubts and the "yes, buts" and the mitigating circumstances.
In "Killings," a father grieving for his murdered son is appalled to find the murderer at large, released on bail and casually appearing about town. Finally the father can stand it no longer; he kidnaps the man and shoots him through the head. To us readers, revenge is sweet; we feel a clear sense of satisfaction as he pulls the trigger. But here again, we're not allowed to get off so lightly. We're shown the careful tidiness of the murderer's apartment; we see how meekly and reasonably he behaves when he still has some hope of being spared. (Forced to drive at gunpoint, he asks, "You wouldn't have the gun cocked, would you? For when I put on the brakes.") And yet none of this lessens our feeling of wicked satisfaction; that's what makes the story so affecting.
"A Father's Story" examines the reaction of a middle-aged man—a devout Catholic—when his daughter confides that she has hit somebody with her car. The father might conceivably save the victim's life by reporting the accident at once, but he thinks instead of his daughter's life, and he chooses to keep it a secret. If it had been one of his sons, he says, he would not have done so. Why? he imagines God asking. Does he love his sons less? No, the father says. "But You never had a daughter and if You had, You could not have borne her passion."
So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.
I love her more than I love truth.
Then you love in weakness, He says.
As you love me, I say …
Another writer might have told the same story but stopped a bit sooner, omitting the question of daughter versus sons, omitting the dialogue with God. That's not Andre Dubus's style. He has a way of stepping forth, however thin the ice.
In "Voices from the Moon," a man is shattered by the news that his ex-wife and his father have fallen in love. He goes to his mother for comfort, which, amazingly, she manages to give him. She predicts the gradual way his hurts will heal, the step-by-step manner in which he and his father will regain their old closeness until one day they can actually sit down to dinner together without dwelling on the past. It's this long, astonishing speech of hers, ending with her remark about not having to live great lives, that elevates the story from soap opera to literature. Another writer might have been content merely to define the situation and then turn away, conveniently ignoring the knotty question of how these people will proceed from here on out. But Dubus forges ahead—again, unblinking.
Not all of the stories work equally well. A few come to an end before the act of forging ahead can be accomplished; several are marred by a dreamlike, rhythmic writing style that suggests the author may have put himself into a trance with his own words.
For a long time she had not been afraid of people or the chances of a day, for she believed she could bear the normal pain of being alive: her heart had been broken by girls and boys, and she had borne that too, and embarrassment and shame and humiliation and failure, and she was not one of those who, once or more wounded, waited fearfully for the next mistake or cruelty or portion of bad luck.
Also, an introduction would have been welcome—a word from Dubus about why certain stories were included and others left out, and perhaps a brief glance backward over the twenty-some years of his career. But it may be greedy to wish for that, when what we've been given is so much: a fine, hefty, deeply rewarding collection from one of this country's ablest writers.
SOURCE: "Crisis Points," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4540, April 6-12, 1990, p. 376.
[In the following review of Selected Stories, Baveystock characterizes Dubus's fictional treatment of human conflict and crisis as psychological in origin and execution and suggests that the longer works are most reflective of the author's considerable insight and perception.]
Only eight of Andre Dubus's fifty-odd short stories or novellas have already been published in this country, in two paperback editions which are now out of print. So the appearance of these twenty-three Selected Storles is to be welcomed by anyone interested in short American fiction. Dubus has only ever written one novel, The Lieutenant, which, were he to write it now, he reveals in an interview with Thomas E. Kennedy in Andre Dubus: A study of the short fiction, "would be a good hundred-page novella … [not] a weak two-hundred page novel." Indeed, this latest volume proves that the long short story is Dubus's great strength: four of the stories account for nearly one half of the book, including the seventy-page "Voices From The Moon," which, with its six different narrative viewpoints, has all the impact of a novella.
Dubus's repeated use of these forms sets him apart from the writers of the American neorealist school with whom he is often lazily lumped together by British critics. Certainly he shares with Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and countless others a preference for the small-town setting, but it is not Dubus's aim to capture the hardships of these ostensibly "small" lives in haunting, spare prose. At his best he does something else altogether, which is to probe the mental, moral and emotional turmoil of these people as they attempt to lead honest and good lives but find themselves failing, often disastrously.
In order to achieve this, Dubus goes unswervingly for the crisis point (the book contains a large number of murders, rapes and violent beatings). His approach, however, is predominantly a psychological one, and he eschews the apparatus of the crime novel (of which he is an avid reader), suspense and mystery. This is not to say that Dubus's writing is undramatic: in "Killings," we follow a man as he sets out to murder his own son's murderer, out on bail, and in "The Pretty Girl," a husband's repeated harassment of his estranged wife escalates into rape. The next time he returns, she has a gun and kills him.
The focus on violent death does become repetitive, and, when it is used to lend the stories a conclusiveness that they otherwise lack, leaves an unpleasant taste. Dubus claims (again in Kennedy's book) that the violence of his stories "is mostly a reflection of American consciousness…. I can't read the paper, even the local one, without coming across violence." Although he obviously doesn't condone this violence—we are not meant to feel much sympathy for Polly in "The Pretty Girl" as she allows her husband to bleed to death—Dubus is clearly drawn to people in extremis.
One of the book's long tours de force, "Rose," perhaps best exemplifies this. It is unique among Dubus's stories in that it makes use of an uninvolved framing narrator. Having got to know the narrator through drinking together in the local bar, the solitary Rose finally tells him her story, one which recurs many times in various forms in this volume: she married young, hopeful and Catholic, and before long found that she and her husband were unable to cope with being poor and having three tiny children. While Rose descends into a torpor, her husband becomes increasingly violent towards their son, until the evening he bodily throws the boy across the room. This awakens Rose's maternal instincts, and in the ensuing mêlée, he also tries to set fire to their apartment with the two girls inside. In desperation, Rose rescues her daughters, but in doing so, murders her husband.
This harrowing tale is related by the narrator with a Faulknerian sense of inevitability (Dubus's long, looping sentences, as well, often echo Faulkner's prose rhythms). Although the story's unconventional conclusion—that Rose is a worthy mother of her children—is made ambiguous by the presence of the garrulous and opinionated narrator, it bespeaks Dubus's fiercely moral vision. The story shows up Dubus's strengths and weaknesses: while his concentration on Rose's torment gives the tale a relentless narrative and emotional power, it precludes any wider exploration of the issues raised. Rose's action is decisely swift, and there is not turning back.
The majority of Dubus's work is centered on a single consciousness, often to undeniable effect; Joyce Carol Oates has called these stories "triumphs of voice." Yet the multiplicity of characters and viewpoints in "Voices From The Moon" comes as something of a relief. This tale of family discord provoked by the father's decision to marry his son's ex-wife is undoubtedly the book's highlight. Each of the six characters is fully fleshed out, and, moreover, a resolution is reached without recourse to the gun. The son finds himself being comforted by his mother's words: "we don't have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we've got."
In the longer stories, Dubus brings to bear what Thomas Kennedy calls his "unabashed humanism" with masterly insight and precision, but these qualities are absent from a good many of the shorter works: this volume's compendiousness does not always serve Dubus well. No such distinction is made by Kennedy's book: in his introduction he writes of "the relief of doffing the armor of criticism and opening one's heart to … characters as near to living creatures as fictional creations can be," and indeed he proceeds to trace Dubus's themes through all of his short stories with a total absence of discernment. Dubus deserves better.
SOURCE: "Reborn in a Wheelchair," in The New York Times Book Review, August 11, 1991, p. 9.
[In the following review, Kriegel comments on the intensity of feeling and honesty found in Dubus's collection of personal essays, Broken Vessels.]
I have never met Andre Dubus, although I think he is as good a writer of short fiction as anyone I have read over the last ten years. But after reading his first book of autobiographical essays, Broken Vessels, I think I know him. In fact, I think I know him fairly well, the way I think I know certain old friends with whom the intricate joinings of friendship have blessed both our mutual past and the language with which we share that past.
In his stories and novellas, collected in the volumes Separate Flights, Finding a Girl in America and Adultery and Other Choices, Mr. Dubus captures the contradictory demands of being an American man more fully than any other contemporary writer I can think of. In the autobiographical essays of Broken Vessels, he captures those same contradictions. Unlike the stories, however, these essays are personal, sometimes painfully personal. There is craft in the language as well as in the tone. But this craft is never used to disguise the life being probed here. There is simply a man who is a writer named Andre Dubus.
Mr. Dubus is not a man's writer in the sense Hemingway tried to be. Even before he was smashed up in a terrible automobile accident that cost him a leg and required him to rely on a wheelchair, Mr. Dubus does not seem to have needed the pose of manhood. He takes the idea of being a man too seriously. The exuberant self of memory and the chastened self he possesses after the accident war with each other. The accident, which occurred in 1986 when he dutifully went to the aid of a stranded motorist, is described and analyzed. It haunts these essays; it somehow haunts even those essays written before it happened. The loss of the use of his legs is a death but it is also a rebirth. And like any writer's rebirth, it is destined to become an obsession.
Few writers have written more knowledgeably of the pleasures men derive from running or lifting weights or playing ball. And becoming an amputee has accentuated Mr. Dubus's love of the physical. In "Running" and "Under the Lights," essays that deal with his life before his accident, Mr. Dubus celebrates the world men inhabit physically. But when he writes about lifting himself, without assistance, from his wheelchair to his young daughter's bunk bed in an attempt to comfort her, a feat he had thought beyond his powers, his prose touches what belongs to him—to him and to each of us who have earned the right to call ourselves, as he does, "cripple."
The contradictions all men, physically handicapped or whole, live with are what Andre Dubus writes about best in these essays. In Broken Vessels, he meets us as father and son, child and adult, husband and lover. He allows us to see him as compassionate and distant, loving and angry, courageous and guilt-ridden.
Mr. Dubus is as honest as he is talented. We watch him strain toward the mercy he is not certain he deserves, a mercy he wants for others as well as for himself. "Living in the world as a cripple," he writes, "allows you to see more clearly the crippled hearts of some people whose bodies are whole and sound. All of us, from time to time, suffer this crippling. Some suffer it daily and nightly; and while most of us, nearly all of us, have compassion and love in our hearts, we cannot or will not see these barely visible wounds of other human beings, and so cannot or will not pick up the telephone … or make some other seemingly trifling gesture to give to someone what only we, and God, can give: an hour's respite, or a day's, or a night's; and sometimes more than respite: sometimes joy."
A deeply religious writer, Mr. Dubus is steeped in the New Testament and in the need for love and compassion. As with Flannery O'Connor, a writer he is frequently compared to, the attempt to reconcile the needs of the artist to the needs of the Roman Catholic believer occasionally seems forced. The book's title essay, for example, begins with Mr. Dubus berating Christ for the loss of his two young children. (He and his wife are separated, and his wife takes custody of their daughters.) He is an amputee in a wheelchair, too depressed to write. And he is for the moment a man who wants to die. The Christ in whom he has fervently believed is now an adversary. Mr. Dubus is a "broken vessel," left to argue the nature of faith with his God.
My problem is not that I don't believe the writer. Quite the opposite. I believe in Andre Dubus's spiritual need and hunger and momentary desolation as readily as I believe in Joseph Epstein's compassionate skepticism or Stanley Elkin's conscience-ridden pain (two other writers whose recent work has given the personal essay a sense of renewed excitement). But there comes a point when the reader feels the writer is too confessional, a moment when Mr. Dubus stands before us so naked and alone that we have to fight the urge to turn away, embarrassed, because the pain is too much to bear.
And then we read how "the physical pain of grief has become, with time, a permanent wound in the soul" that is followed by a realization of "the transcendent and common bond of human suffering, and with that comes forgiveness, and with forgiveness comes love." So, Andre Dubus writes, "My crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses." Lacking Mr. Dubus's faith, I still feel immensely grateful for sentences like these. For they confirm one's sense that the author of Broken Vessels is worth knowing, both as a man and as a writer.
SOURCE: "Road Maps to Sanity," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 11, No. 7, October-November, 1991, p. 7.
[In the following review, Hummel discusses Dubus's tendency to focus on life's daily battles instead of its more dramatic moments in Broken Vessels.]
Since losing one leg, the use of his other, and nearly his life to a car accident in 1986, Andre Dubus has labeled himself a cripple. Then he gets on with living. Readers of Dubus are accustomed to such directness in his language; he does not use polite, political labels such as handicapped or disabled. Yet Dubus demonstrates that from his eyes, crippled is not only more accurate, it is more resonant. Anyone who studies this book will realize the power contained in words and events that might otherwise be viewed as simple or even ugly, or, more likely, as parts of our world and our lives we either fear to face or fail to notice. In this, his first book of essays after eight books of fiction, Dubus shows us how the spirit of being human makes the common difficulties of daily ritual attain the metaphorical and the metaphysical.
In Broken Vessels Dubus explores themes undeniable to Americans living in the thirteen years over which the essays range, employing the same depth and clarity of understanding readers of his fiction have come to expect. Along the way, Dubus discusses his views on trains, publishers, sheep, faith, women, ghosts, parenting, pain, and always, on survival.
Readers grow to realize that we are all crippled in one way or another, and it is in living through our own cripplings that we can, to quote Dubus' physical therapist, find our "real" selves. It is in seeing his leg stump as a convenient chair for his daughter or in witnessing the triumph of successfully lifting himself from his wheelchair to a child's upper bunk that we understand "our bodies exist to perform the condition of our spirits." Despite the struggle to live with such an injury, Dubus concludes:
… I remain. So my crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses.
Just as Dubus shows the beauty and the fortitude he has found within himself after this accident, elsewhere in the book he demonstrates the purity and power in other subjects we might fail to notice were it not for his ability to take us to their underside. Dubus will transport us inside the criminal justice system and show us its failings, its inequities, and its ugliness, but he will also take us to a moment of pure and honest human compassion encountered with a stranger on a New York street.
The same qualities are true of his language. Dubus is, as Tobias Wolff says in his introduction to the book, a writer's writer, one to whom writers have been turning for two decades to learn the craft of writing. We see words as pretty as flowers and as functional as stems. It is the juxtaposition of the raw and the artful that creates explosions within his language and from which the meaning is revealed. We see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Yet Dubus always brings us to such realizations without becoming moralistic. For example, in the essay "Under the Lights," he shows us not the glitz and money of big-league baseball, but the spirit of its roots, minor-league players in his southern Louisiana childhood. Their efforts become larger than life, and we see them embodied in players like Billy Joe Barret on one night when he hit a baseball "harder and faster than he could at any other instant in his life." Dubus writes:
We never saw the ball start its descent, its downward arc to earth. For me, it never has. It is rising white over the lights high above the right field fence, a bright and vanishing sphere of human possibility soaring into the darkness beyond our vision.
The triumph rests in the blind ability to hit the ball, not in becoming a face on a baseball card or a statistic in a book. The triumph for Dubus is in the daily grace of a first baseman catching a warm-up throw or in the silence of a morning communion.
In the essay form, we expect writers to take such leaps of faith as that embodied by a Billy Joe Barret. Another expectation from the essay is an intimate contact with a human mind. In essays we recognize, if not expect, the complications and contradictions inherent in closely contacting individual human ideas and emotions. Thus, we must appreciate Dubus' directness, his sincerity. In Dubus we meet a fiercely independent individual forced to depend on others for even the most intimate functions of living. He speaks openly of a struggle to balance his ingrained gentlemanly reverence for women fostered by a southern 1940s childhood with an intellectual respect for them, the battles they face, and the complexities of living in an age that is uncertain about gender expectations. We meet a steadfast Marine and a writer, a gardener of words and thought. Dubus is all of these—a man who unconsciously stops at an apparent accident scene, and a writer left to contemplate that the same accident would take from him his legs. Such is human complexity, and the quality writer shows it to us without surprise.
It is in the essays that comprise the final two sections of the book where human contradiction, compassion, honesty, and will for survival achieve their greatest power. Here Dubus chronicles the accident that cost him his legs as well as the journey toward recovery. He focuses not on what appear to be the dramatic moments, but on the rituals of surviving pain and loss. Dubus retains a reverence for the quiet battles that come with being human, as he does for the language, which is his means of offering testimony to having survived such battles. In the title essay he grows to an understanding that the potter cannot repair a broken vessel, but must instead create a new one.
The essays are lessons on mortality. Yet one clear lesson on mortality is an affirmation that life is worth living. Dubus asks that we recognize we are beings for whom life is a beautiful gift even at its most awful moments; he assures us we will survive the awful moments and we will retain our spirit, in short, that indeed "we are, we are, we are …" This assurance is present throughout the book, as are the sacraments by which he has come to such understanding, a presence within his fiction even before his accident. Perhaps Luke Ripley, the narrator of Dubus' "A Father's Story" (The Times Are Never So Bad, 1983), best captures what he has come to learn about survival: "It is not hard to live through a day, if you can live through the moment."
SOURCE: "Harshness to Poetry, Poetry to Revelation," in Commonweal, Vol. CXVIII, No. 20, November 22, 1991, pp. 696-97.
[In the following review, Toolan discusses Dubus's ability to turn poetry into revelation in Broken Vessels.]
Writers have their own set of moral commandments to add to the classic ten. "I can't write about any place I haven't smelled," admits Andre Dubus. On the night of July 23, 1986, that imperative had drawn him from his home in Haverhill, Massachusetts, near the New Hampshire border, to a seedy section of Boston to do research for a story he was writing about a prostitute. On his way home late that night, on a four-lane segment of I-93 North, Dubus stopped to assist Luz Santiago and her brother Luis, whose car had collided with a motorcycle abandoned in the third lane. (The cyclist, drunk, had fallen off his bike, and fearing arrest, had wandered off.) Moments later, an oncoming car struck the three, killing the twenty-three-year-old Luis, slightly injuring Luz, and leaving Dubus's life hanging by a thread. Twelve operations followed, including the amputation of his left leg; in January 1987 his sixth child, Madeleine, was born, and in November of that year, his third marriage (to the writer Peggy Rambach) broke apart and the police arrived at his door to take Madeleine and her older sister, Cadence, to their mother. By June of 1988, Dubus confesses in this stunning collection of essays, "I wanted to die."
What happened to Dubus in an instant, at the very moment of reaching out to help strangers who scarcely spoke English, would be hard enough to bear for any man. What gives the event a special edge in this case has to do with the boisterous physicality of this man: ex-Marine captain, hunter, weight-lifter, runner, boozer, riotous Red Sox fan, hilarious storyteller, and sensual lover of women—someone made in the image of Hemingway. All gone? Literally not a leg to stand on? In front of all the attendants at the Hale Hospital physical therapy clinic, Dubus tells us in the title essay, he broke down and wept uncontrollably, blurting out, "I'm not a man among men anymore and I'm not a man among women either." "Mrs. T," his principal therapist, says nothing for a while, proceeds to massage the foot, ankle, and calf of what he now calls his "good leg," and then looks straight at him and says: "It's in Jeremiah…. The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he makes a new vessel. You can't make a new vessel out of a broken one. It's time to find the real you."
Broken Vessels collects twenty essays, written between 1977 and 1990, that display not only the "real" Dubus risen from the wish to die, but also his serviceable old vessel—the one that can so masterfully track the pain, complications, and precarious choices of his character. ("How rare it is," John Updike has written of Dubus's work, "to encounter characters with wills, with a sense of choice.") In these tales from his life, we move with the author from his Catholic boyhood in Cajun-Creole Louisiana up through the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood and into the tangled business of making a living as a writer who refuses to produce the big novel publishers want. Along the way, we get an elegiac train trip across the country ("Railroad Sketches"), a bitterly funny encounter with anything but "sweet and lovable sheep" ("Out like a Lamb"), an account of visits by two ghosts Dubus was "unable to help" ("Two Ghosts"), and the careful dissection of the author's youthful habit of idealizing females, a tendency that slowly yields to an effort "to see women as they are … creatures like me, who … do not need me to keep them from being splashed by cars, from falling down the stairs" ("Of Robin Hood and Womanhood"). "On Charon's Warf" Dubus reflects on how the mystery of the Eucharist—"without touch, God is a monologue … he must touch and be touched"—connects with marriage, which often suffocates under words, and which perishes if it is not nourished by silent rituals of affection (such as scrambling eggs for your beloved). "Under the Lights" is pure lyricism, a tribute to Class C baseball and Billy Joe Barrett's amazing home run—that sends "a bright and vanishing sphere of human possibility soaring into the darkness beyond our vision."
By the time you have moved through these story-fragments of a writer's life, you will understand why Tobias Wolff, in his introduction, claims that for Dubus "the quotidian and the spiritual don't exist on different planes, but infuse each other." You will also know, freshly, the gift of the storyteller. "Short story writers," insists Dubus, "simply do what human beings have always done." Like "good counselors who won't let you get by with the lack of honesty and commitment we bring to abstractions … short story writers simply do what human beings have always done. They write stories because they have to; because they cannot rest … because they are human, and all of us need to speak into the silence of mortality, to interrupt and ever so briefly stop the quiet flow, and with stories try to understand at least some of it."
Finally, as you will have come to see in "The Judge and Other Snakes," a story of a young girl rescued from a beating by a town bully, it will be no surprise that Dubus stopped for those strangers on the highway. It is his habit, the habit of one perhaps more inclined to brawl than the next fellow, but one who learned from an unlikely quarter to turn his strength to other purposes. Pacifists might well meditate the paradox, as Dubus puts it, that "the Marine Corps develops in a recruit at boot camp, an officer candidate at Quantico, the instinct to surrender oneself for another; expands that instinct beyond families or mates or other beloveds to include all Marines … which means, sadly, that the Marine Corps, in a way limited to military action, has in general instilled more love in its members than Christian churches have in theirs."
Without self-pity, with unflinching honesty, we come in the last third of this wondrous book to the accident—and to what it's like to be a paraplegic. Everything takes "three times as long." You cannot move quickly enough, for instance, to prevent your infant daughter from slicing off her index finger in the sprocket of an exercise bicycle.
The writer's challenge, as Goethe once put it, is to turn the harsh truth of one's life into poetry. In a deeper sense, which Andre Dubus demonstrates, there is a further task, to turn poetry into revelation.
SOURCE: A review of Dancing After Hours, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 1, January 1, 1996, pp. 58-9.
[In the following review, the critic notes that in the stories in Dancing After Hours Dubus continues the themes of his earlier work but adds a new element as a result of his accident that makes "The Colonel's Wife" and the title story especially resonant.]
Dubus's first story collection in nearly a decade [Dancing After Hours] centers around the concerns that have informed all his writing: spirituality, Catholicism, adultery, love and the difficult attempt to sustain it through marriage and family—and, more broadly, the ways lives can suddenly change, sometimes with sudden cruelty, sometimes with grace. Two stories among the 14 here are particularly fine; both gain resonance from the way Dubus's own life was affected by a tragic accident. They are "The Colonel's Wife," about a retired Marine whose relationship with his wife is altered in complex and surprising ways after he breaks both his legs when his horse falls; and the magnificent title story, which concerns a man turned into a quadriplegic by a freak diving mishap, but whose continued zest for life helps bring other people together. Also very strong are the four stories that chronicle the lives of Ted Briggs and LuAnn Arceneaux, and their love for one another, by portraying their lives before they've met and tracing them through a decade of marriage. Dubus's material can be seen as either slightly old-fashioned or as timeless, particularly since he is unapologetically concerned with the spiritual and religious health of his characters. Hopefully, this collection will serve to introduce this important and consistently fine writer to the wider audience he has always deserved.
SOURCE: A review of Dancing After Hours, in Library Journal, Vol. 121, No. 3, February 15, 1996, p. 177.
[In the following review, Lynch observes that Dubus "expresses some of life's important truths" through the characters of Dancing After Hours.]
These stories [in Dancing After Hours] are about women and men and the vast gulf that lies between them, which can, only sometimes, be bridged by love. Dubus, who has written eight other books of fiction and one collection of essays, lyrically examines modern relationships: marriages, affairs, and May/December romances. Three of the 14 stories in this collection follow the same couple, LuAnn Arceneaux and Ted Briggs, through their courtship, LuAnn's near-fall into sin, and, in "Out of the Snow," into the kitchen as LuAnn, now a 44-year-old housewife, heroically fends off two rapists who have made their way into her house. Most of the action in these stories is secondary to character and to a kind of interior monologue, in which Dubus, most often through female narrators, expresses some of life's important truths. In "Out of the Snow" LuAnn describes how, by the simple task of returning a shopping cart to the store and saving work for someone else, "You join the world. With you body. And for those few minutes with your soul." Only one story, "The Intruder," seems predictable; otherwise, these short works surprise the reader and affirm life's mysteries and pleasures. Recommended for all fiction collections.
SOURCE: "Love and Other Choices," in The New York Times Book Review, February 25, 1996, p. 13.
[Bausch is an American novelist and short story writer. In the following review, he applauds Dubus's return to short story writing and asserts that Dancing After Hours demonstrates the author's talent in the genre.]
I am always amused when writers who have made their careers writing novels start talking about the short story. Often enough, they fall into a kind of polite disparagement of the form and, by extension, of short-story writers as a species. Of course, this isn't new. Thirty years ago, in the introduction to a selection of his short fiction, Norman Mailer likened the short-story writer to a jeweler who "stays in his shop" and "polishes those jewels." He himself, he declared, was not in possession of the "proper awe" to really work at the form. He went on to say that in order to write stories, one need only "be good for a day or a week." As if a lifetime of writing stories were reducible to that.
Recently, at a writers' conference, I heard the novelist Isabel Allende remark that she hated short stories and never wanted to write them. At some of the magazines that have traditionally published stories, young editors have taken to referring to short fiction as "the 'F' word." If a writer happens to write stories, there is always strong pressure to write novels instead. Novels are bigger, they make more money; and, in general, they seem to command more respect from the literary press.
Yet the short story has persisted, and even enjoyed a renaissance some years back. One of the writers who were part of that renaissance—if that's what it was—was Andre Dubus, whose first collection, Separate Flights, appeared in 1975, about the same time as Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Ann Beattie's Secrets and Surprises.
Mr. Dubus followed with seven other collections, including Adultery & Other Choices and Finding a Girl in America. But since the release of his Selected Stories in 1989, there had not been a new collection from him. It was thought that he might have stopped writing stories in the aftermath of the terrible traffic accident that nearly cost him his life. It was easy enough to suppose that the matter of putting his world back together might consume the energies necessary to "be good for a day or a week" over and over during the years.
Now, with the publication of his luminous new collection, Dancing After Hours, Mr. Dubus gives the lie to all that. And in demonstrating, once again, why he is celebrated as a writer of short fiction, he also shows why the form itself is so persistent. For the fact is that there are matters of the spirit the short story addresses better than any other literary art, matters much closer to the province of poetry than of the novel, and requiring the same rigorous control of language and nuance, the same working out of the shape of meaning.
The briefest story in Dancing After Hours is called "At Night." It is only two pages long, and yet it moved me the way a great poem does.
"She always knew she would be a widow," the story begins. "Why, even before she was a bride, when she was engaged, she knew, in moments when she imagined herself very old, saw herself slow and lined and gray in a house alone, with photographs of children and grandchildren on a mantel over the fire. It was what women did, and she glimpsed it, over the years, as she glimpsed her own death."
This opening is followed by a loving description of an entire married life, of children and grandchildren and the slow losses of aging. And then the story arrives at its delicate, sorrowing last paragraph, whose images, in their unabashed tenderness, deliver a blow to the heart:
"But on the summer night when he died while she slept, probably while he slept, too, she woke in the cool dark, the windows open and a pale light in the sky, and the birds singing, and she knew before she turned to him, and she did not think of her children, or of being alone. She rolled toward him and touched his face, and her love went out of her, into his cooling skin, and she wept for what it had done to him, crept up and taken him while he slept and dreamed. Maybe it came out of a dream and the dream became it. Wept, lying on her side, with her hand on his cheek, because he had been alone with it, surprised, maybe confused now as he wandered while the birds sang, seeing the birds, seeing her lying beside his flesh, touching his cheek, saying: 'Oh hon—.'"
The story has all the resonance and melody of poetry, yet it satisfies on every level as fiction too—offering all the pleasure one derives from narratives, long or short. As is true of so much of Mr. Dubus's work, its subject is love.
In fact, the stories in Dancing After Hours are all about love—and, in several important instances, about happy love, whose arrival sweetens complicated lives. Even when the theme is the death of love, as in "A Love Song," the motion of the story is quite inexorably—and convincingly—toward acceptance and joy.
We first meet Ted Briggs, a Vietnam veteran who wants to have a family, in "Falling in Love." The object of his affections is a talented, ambitious young woman who, when she discovers that she is pregnant with his child, leaves him and has an abortion. In this story, we become familiar with both his pain and his qualities, and so, when he walks into another story, "All the Time in the World," we know he is exactly what that story's heroine needs most. We also see Ted and his wife in two other stories, which trace the growth of their marriage through the pangs and dangers of domestic life. But they make up only a very pleasing part of the wonderful array of characters and situations in this book.
There is a story about a murder ("The Last Moon") and one about the aftermath of a dreadful catastrophe at sea ("Blessings"). There are stories in which lovers leave each other, and in which people come to recognize and then negotiate with the emptiness of their lives. In one story, a man who has had both legs crushed in a riding accident realizes that his wife, who is caring for him, has begun an affair. In another story, a young man is killed in a frightening case of mistaken identity. And yet, over and over, reading along, one is given the sense that the authorial light that is shining on all these people is benign, that they are striving for some sort of decency and that their creator views them with great love and forbearance. And here, as in life, people are sometimes rewarded beyond their most fragile hopes.
In the title story—one of the most gracious and exquisite works of fiction I have ever read—a small group of people in a neighborhood bar in a town somewhere in Massachusetts move from separate and even alienated realities toward friendship and love and understanding. And they do so credibly, without an ounce of sentimentality, in a prose that is perfectly wrought, constructed with an intensity and an artistry that no novelist—even if he is a great one—ought to try if he is not willing to give the form its just amount of awe.
I said that the title story is gracious. In fact, it seems to me that this whole collection is suffused with grace, bathed in a kind of spiritual glow. Mr. Dubus's characters are people we more than feel for—we end up cheering for them. Often because they are courageous or simply plain stubborn, but most of all because they refuse to despair. "My job," one of them says about her own failure, "is to try, and to be vigilant, and keep hoping." That could be the line on which the entire book stands.
We do not talk much about beauty these days in literary criticism, and I think it's high time we started doing so. Andre Dubus's Dancing After Hours is beautiful.
SOURCE: "The Lines of Anguish," in Chicago Tribune—Books, March 10, 1996, p. 3.
[Shechner is a professor of English at the State University of New York in Buffalo. In the following review, he argues that Dancing After Hours "might just as well have been titled 'Tough Love' for what its characters endure in almost every story."]
This latest collection of short stories by Andre Dubus might just as well have been titled "Tough Love" for what its characters endure in almost every story. In one, a young actress, finding herself pregnant just as her career is taking off, chooses an abortion, though her boyfriend begs to raise the child, if need be, on his own. In another, a veteran of casual romances finally picks a man to settle down with, and, after their first lovemaking, launches into a delirious monologue about marital violence, disclosing a terror of intimacy.
There's a story about an adolescent boy who, fearing the loss of his older sister's attention, shoots her lover, mistaking him, or pretending to mistake him, for a prowler. In yet another, a high school teacher seduces a male student and talks him into murdering her husband. Dubus does concede the odd upbeat ending—even unto blessings from radiant angels—but not without bigtime nastiness along the way. If your family survives a shark attack when a fishing boat goes down ("Blessings"), someone else must be torn apart by the sharks.
Some of Dubus' stories in Dancing After Hours veer perilously close to country music, where broken hearts are as plentiful as catfish, and cheatin' hearts will tell on you. There is plenty of honky-tonking (Boston style), liquor and cigarette smoke. Dubus, who has been through three marriages, has a geologist's sonar—Or is that a dowsing rod?—for the fault lines in relationships. But some of these heartbreak stories simply chew away nervously at the subject; it is only when Dubus gets down to physical pain and psychological humiliation that his stories take on the dimensions of revelation.
Dubus has been crippled—a word he much prefers to "disabled"—since a night 10 years ago when he was struck by a car. Dubus spent months in the hospital, underwent 10 operations, lost one leg and was left with limited use of the other. A year after the accident, Dubus' third wife left him, taking their two young children.
For Dubus, an ex-Marine captain who cherished the physical side of life and confesses a need for domesticity, this turn of events has been devastating, and, in a volume of essays published in 1991, Broken Vessels, he has written forthrightly of his anguish and his struggles to recompose his life. The best stories in Dancing After Hours are dramatizations of those essays; and where Dubus follows the lines of his pain, his stories are as raw and unsettling to read as they are impossible to put aside.
In "The Colonel's Wife," Robert Townsend, an injured Marine colonel with two broken legs, is left alone by his wife, Lydia, and broods over his inability to do the daily things that the rest of us take for granted. Understanding that Lydia is seeing another man and will leave him shortly, the colonel can only wait, drug himself against the pain, and try to take command of his thoughts.
"He opened the table's top drawer, got the bottle of Percodan, and shook one into his palm. He saw himself as he would look to Lydia: a man in pain, lying on his back with casts on his legs, reaching for the glass of water beside him…. For nearly three hours the images had waited, perched and watching just beyond his skin, and now they gathered and assaulted him, and he breathed deeply and fast, and opened and closed his hand, and saw in the snow and the pines Lydia making love."
When not mining desperation, Dubus falls into supervising his characters and being hard on them. He lays a moral grid upon these stories, continually testing his characters for fitness and frailty. It helps to know that Dubus is Catholic and that his sense of life is saturated in the church's estimation of human fallibility and moral potential: that we are fallen but capable of redemption. Dubus works with secularized equivalents of sin, salvation, communion, evil and sanctity, seeming at times unforgiving of moral infirmity. Maybe that is the Marine in him, for he does value men with moxie, women with guts, and moral stamina all around.
That doesn't, alas, always work to the benefit of his writing, so that when, in "Out of the Snow," LuAnn Arceneaux, a workout queen, whips two would-be muggers with karate kicks and blows with a frying skillet, we can cheer her on without taking an interest in her. It is only in the depths of vulnerability and in the outcroppings of weirdness that Dubus puts aside the moral grid and gives us life apart from standard judgments.
Fortitude may be the key to getting him through life, but Andre Dubus is the more powerful writer when admitting to being alone, defenseless and shaky, and that is much of the time in Dancing After Hours.
SOURCE: "Afraid of Sharks, Rifles, and the Passing of Time," in The New York Times. March 14, 1996, p. C19.
[Lehmann-Haupt is the New York Times's book critic. In the following review, he explores the various ways in which Dubus applies the element of fear in the stories of Dancing After Hours.]
People coping with fear is the predominant theme of the 14 stories in Andre Dubus's fine new collection, Dancing After Hours, his first work of new fiction to be published since he was badly injured in a traffic accident a decade ago.
Sometimes the fear is a memory, as in two cases of veteran soldiers recalling the terror of battle. At other times the fear is anticipation of loneliness, particularly well rendered in "Sunday Morning," where a 36-year-old woman grows weary of making love to yet another man uninterested in permanence: "She saw him going home to his shower and razor and clothes, and the sun setting while she put a frozen dinner in the microwave so she could eat before dark; she saw the last shadows in the courtyard below the kitchen and on the street in front of her apartment; saw herself driving in dusk to the video store."
In some cases the fear is of an external threat, as in "Blessings," a particularly effective story in which a woman is awakened early in the morning by the memory of something terrifying that happened to her and her family a year earlier, and we gradually learn how on a Caribbean fishing cruise their boat sank and they were attacked by sharks.
In other cases the fear is of a state of mind, as in "The Last Moon," a six-page prose poem about a woman anticipating widowhood. But almost always the fear quickly seizes the reader and gives one a strong stake in the story's outcome, whether the fear is resolved or realized. In the opening story, "The Intruder," an insecure boy imagines himself a war hero while firing his 22 at tin cans. As the pressures on him mount during the course of an evening, the reader becomes afraid of what else he may shoot at with his rifle.
How do Mr. Dubus's people deal with their fears? Rusty, the mother in the family that has survived the shark attack in "Blessings," works out her fear by remembering. This is dramatized for the reader by the story's gradual progression from images of her fear to the concrete event.
But what enabled her to survive in the first place seems to have been her unity with the natural world. Oddly enough, her saving grace is revealed most explicitly in what she experiences whenever she hunts pheasant: "Sacredness, a joy subdued by sorrow not for the dead bird, or even for her killing it, but for something she knew in her heart yet could not name, something universal and as old as the earth and the breath of plants."
Luanne Arceneaux, who figures importantly in three of the collection's stories, is searching for something similar to Rusty's outlook to help her deal with a form of existential fear. Luanne first appears in "All the Time in the World" as a young college graduate who is conventionally promiscuous.
As the narrative explains with caustic overtones: "This was a time in America when courting had given way to passion, and passion burned without vision; this led to much postcoital intimacy, people revealing themselves to each other after they were lovers, and often they were frightened or appalled by what they heard as they were lying naked on a bed."
Luanne grows tired of this life, reembraces her Catholicism and eventually finds a man who actually wants love and marriage. By the third story in which she figures, "Out in the Snow," she has three children, and as she watches them dress in the morning she is struck by their dawdling and by the sense of time it implies. "Hurry was imposed on them by adults; they had not lived long enough to see time as something they should control, long enough to believe they could."
With time on her hands, Luanne finds that her freedom is "both her challenge and her vocation." She tells her husband "she must learn to be 5 again, before time began to mean what one could produce in its passing." When she eventually learns to invest each moment with a kind of sacredness, she is figuratively rewarded by finding herself able to fight off a different form of shark attack, an attempt by two men to rape her.
First, Luanne overcomes her fear, then she confronts the fearful thing, as if she were heeding the advice of the philosopher William James as articulated by a character in yet another of Mr. Dubus's stories: "He said that fear doesn't cause running away. Running away causes fear." Not everything in Dancing After Hours is up to the high level of the Luanne stories. Occasionally Mr. Dubus overinflates his endings, with the result that they go limp instead of soaring. Sometimes he gets trapped inside a character's feelings and has to spend too many words to get out: "The earth itself was leaving with her sad and pitying husband, was drawing away from her. Stars fell. That was a song, and music would never again be lovely; it was gone with the shattering stars and coldly dying moon, the trees of such mortal green; gone with light itself."
And one otherwise strong story, "The Colonel's Wife," is tainted by the narrative's sudden and pointless shifts in tense: "Lydia knew his grief well, and tenderly; were it not part of him, she may have loved him less." And, "They were words and feelings wafting about in a season he or Lydia may not live to see."
But in the title story, Dancing After Hours, Mr. Dubus is perfectly in control. Here he conveys in frightening detail the stoic loneliness of a woman afraid to risk love because of what she sees as her handicaps. But when a man suffering from quadriplegia shows up for dinner and an evening of drinking at the tavern where she tends bar, she is taught a powerful lesson in overcoming fear.
What could have been a sentimental story remains understated. Interior and exterior landscapes are in balance. As in the best of Mr. Dubus's stories, people living mean lives are magnified, so that all of us can identify with them.