Meditations from a Movable Chair
Andre Dubus has long been considered a master of short fiction. His reputation was established in the 1970’s with two collections of short stories, Separate Flights (1975) and Adultery and Other Choices (1977). In the early 1980’s, Dubus published three volumes containing both short stories and novellas, as well as the book-length novella Voices from the Moon (1984). Then one July night in 1986, his life changed forever. While driving to his home in Haverhill, Massachusetts, Dubus stopped to help a stranded motorist. A passing car hit the writer, injuring him critically. Both legs were smashed; one later had to be amputated. When he was released from the hospital two months and many operations later, Dubus knew that he would never leave his wheelchair. In the months that followed, his wife left him, taking their two young children, and Dubus found himself in constant pain and too depressed to write. In 1991, Dubus brought out a book of essays, Broken Vessels, but he did not publish another collection of short stories until 1996, when Dancing After Hours appeared.
Like Broken Vessels and Dancing After Hours, Meditations from a Movable Chair reflects the author’s ordeal. Most of the twenty-five essays in this collection make some reference to Dubus’s situation. However, though these “meditations” are all highly personal in tone, their subject is not the author but the human condition in general, and, specifically, the relationship between human beings and God.
It has been noted that Dubus’s short stories usually end with a resolution, sometimes even with a moral. The essays in this volume are structured similarly. In the first of them, “About Kathryn,” the author’s sister telephones to tell him about being raped at knifepoint in her own yard. Her feelings are ambivalent. On one hand, as a devout Catholic, she feels compelled to bless her attacker during the rape and to pray for him afterward. However, she is certain that she would have killed him if he had threatened her daughter. There is nothing idiosyncratic about this ambivalence; Dubus presents it as the way any good person feels when confronted by evil. Moreover, he does not minimize the effort needed to forgive so heinous an act. What he does assert is that given enough time, prayer can erase hatred and produce forgiveness. In “Giving Up the Gun,” an essay that appears near the end of the volume, Dubus comes to much the same conclusion, though in this case he stresses his realization that ultimately one must trust in God, rather than in oneself.
Dubus’s fifth essay is another account of an evil act and its consequences. This time, however, the evil is institutionalized. The “Imperiled Men” of the title are gays in the military. Their plight is illustrated by Dubus’s story of a much-decorated Navy pilot, the commander of an air group on an aircraft carrier. After he hears that Navy investigators are to present their findings about him to his captain, the pilot kills himself. As a result, the Navy loses a valuable officer, and morale is shattered among the men under his command, who thought his sexual orientation less important than his skill and judgment. Dubus later finds out that the Navy hierarchy kept the pilot away from his plane, fearing that he might deliberately crash it. To them, a gay officer was expendable; a plane was not.
Institutional indifference is also the subject of “Letter to Amtrak,” which details some horrendous experiences Dubus had while traveling. It was bad enough that he had to buy a first- class ticket on an airplane in order to have a place where he could sit. What happened on an Amtrak train, however, was much worse. First he found the entry to his coach too narrow for his wheelchair; then he discovered that it was impossible for him to use the toilet. Dubus’s letter was an effort to have such matters remedied. What is even more difficult to change, however, is the way that most people view those who have physical problems. In “Song of Pity,” the author explains why he resents the easy sentimentality that denies their real sufferings. From his new perspective, Dubus can see how little he knew about what his disabled friend in graduate school faced every day. He accuses himself of lacking imagination or empathy. The meditation ends with a plea for all the people on this earth who are wounded either in body or in spirit. They do not need platitudes, Dubus now knows; they need real compassion, which means a consciousness of their problems and the willingness to help them.
Meditations from a Movable Chair stresses the sad fact that human beings often do not appreciate what God has given them. In “Legs,” “A Country Road Song,” and “Autumn Legs,” Dubus recalls what it was like to walk and to run. In “Legs,” he remembers telling a girl who complained about her large thighs that she should be grateful for her legs, but,...
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