The Art of Reading Andre Dubus: We Don`t Have



The Art of Reading Andre Dubus: We Don`t Have
The Art of Reading
Andre Dubus
most important books in my life have
arrived by providence. As a teenager, I stumbled upon one enormous literary discovery
after another. My father gifted me his worn
paperback editions of Galway Kinnell and James Wright
when I was just fourteen; at sixteen, I found a coffeestained copy of Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling
From (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988) abandoned on a table
at a local café. The work of American short story writer
Andre Dubus arrived in a similarly serendipitous way.
During the bitterly cold February of my twenty-third
year, I made a Sunday pilgrimage to an independent
bookstore. It was a bland store—utilitarian metal bookshelves, unremarkable carpeting, humming fluorescent
lights—but I could always count on the staff’s recommendations. I had never heard of Dubus before, and it
would be years of mispronunciation before I learned that
his last name rhymes with “abuse,” like “duh-byoos.”
But that day, Dancing After Hours (Knopf, 1996) leapt
out at me.
I plucked the book from the shelf. On the back cover,
comparisons to Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver
caught my eye, as did mentions of the obsessions I would
soon come to understand were hallmarks of Dubus’s
work: tenderness, hurt, courage, redemption. I opened
the paperback and submitted it to a test I would later
discover Dubus himself was fond of: I read the opening lines of a few stories. By the end of the fi rst line of
“The Timing of Sin,” I was ready to plunk down my
twelve dollars: “On a Thursday night in early autumn
she nearly committed adultery, was within minutes of
consummating it, or within touches, kisses; it was difficult to measure by time or by her mouth and tongue
and hands, or by his.”
Over the next week, I carefully read each story in Dancing After Hours; over the following weeks, I reread the
stories. And it wasn’t long before I had collected and read
everything Dubus had written. I quickly discovered that
his work was not easy; the stories were fraught with hard
moments of loneliness, heartache, violence, adultery, rape,
murder, and abortion. “I think honest writers write about
LL bodwell.indd 21
J O S H U A B O D W E L L is a
Maine-based journalist and
fiction writer. His profi le of
Richard Ford appeared in
the November/December
2006 issue of Poets & Writers
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the literary life
what bothers them,” Dubus once said
of his choice of subject matter.
Though some have found his narratives too dark or brooding, I was
startled and impressed by the richness
of the characters Dubus sketched. He
populated his stories with complex
characters that are neither all good nor
all evil, neither all right nor all wrong—
but none of them seemed completely
beyond the possibility of redemption.
This touch of kindheartedness amazed
me. As I read, his characters became
a part of my consciousness and my
understanding of humanity: a young
boy haunted by the urge to masturbate
(“If They Knew Yvonne”); a young girl
struggling with her weight (“The Fat
Girl”); a wife caught in the moment
of accepting and dealing with the
consequences of her failed marriage
(“Adultery”); a father hypnotized by
the false hope promised by revenge
(“Killings”); and another father, this
one divorced, torn between doing what
is “right” and protecting his daughter
(“A Father’s Story”). With a delicate
touch that many writers lack, Dubus
could skim the surface of sentimentality even as he graced his characters
with quiet dignity.
I learned later that like so many
of his inscrutable yet familiar characters, Dubus himself was a complex man. A thrice-divorced devout
Catholic who fathered six children—
including Andre Dubus III, the author of House of Sand and Fog (Norton,
1999)—by two women, Dubus was a
barrel-chested ex-marine who liked
a stiff drink and the occasional bar
fight, but had a propensity to cry during schmaltzy movies. He could be
distracted and distant at times, but
many describe him as one of the most
tender, sentimental people they’ve
ever known.
I understand now that his writing
has been a twofold gift in my life. As
a writer, the short stories taught me
about compression and point of view,
and as a human being they gave me a
deeper understanding of empathy and
ERHAPS more than any other
American writer of his generation, Andre Dubus was
fiercely devoted to the short
story. “I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live,” Dubus
once wrote. “They are what our friends
tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their
cry against injustice.”
While his stories would eventually
earn him fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations,
as well as the PEN /Malamud Award,
the Rea Award for the Short Story,
the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and
nominations for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize,
Dubus struggled to find a foothold in a
publishing world dominated by novels.
His devotion to the short story kept
him off the best-seller list, and even
today Dubus remains largely unknown
to the general public, praised instead
as a “writer’s writer.” New readers are
likely to have discovered Dubus by way
of In the Bedroom and We Don’t Live Here
Anymore, two award-winning films
adapted from his stories. Yet Dubus has
influenced scores of today’s short story
practitioners, including Chris Offutt,
Robert Olmstead, Tobias Wolff, and
Monica Wood, and is greatly admired
by E. L. Doctorow, John Irving, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and John
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana,
in the summer of 1936, Dubus was
raised and schooled in the Catholic
South. He remained involved with the
church throughout his life, and religious themes are often reflected, along
with his own personal experiences, in
the moral and ethical dilemmas his
characters struggle to navigate. Dubus
told Walker Percy biographer Patrick
Samway, in an interview published
in America magazine in 1986, that he
believed his Catholicism heightened
his “sense of fascination and compassion.” If many people view the Catholic
faith in black and white, Dubus saw it
as multicolored. “If there were no sin,
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there wouldn’t be art,” he once quipped
in an interview in Glimmer Train.
Dubus was drawn to writing at an
early age and reveled in the work of
Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway. He began publishing stories while
attending McNeese State University
in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and continued writing even after he joined the
United States Marine Corps in 1958.
When Dubus eventually realized he
had become a marine to prove his manhood to his father, he left the military
(where he had risen to the rank of captain) for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
In Iowa, Dubus studied under Richard
Yates and Kurt Vonnegut, two writers who would later become staunch
supporters of his work. After earning
his MFA in 1965, Dubus drew on the
material he’d gathered during his years
as a peacetime marine to write the only
published novel of his thirty-year writing career: The Lieutenant (Dial Press,
1967). By the time he joined the faculty
at Bradford College in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1966 (where he remained
until his retirement in 1984), Dubus
had discovered the Russian short story
master Anton Chekhov. When he realized that Chekhov’s story “Peasants”
managed to squeeze a year in the life of
a poor Russian family into just thirty
pages, Dubus became infatuated by
the idea of condensing tales that were
novelistic in scope into short stories or
novellas. He trashed the second novel
he had spent months writing and dedicated himself to the short story. “My
conscience is Chekhov,” Dubus told
interviewer Robert Nathan in the February 1977 issue of Bookletter. “I write
with him on my shoulder.”
Dubus’s prowess in narrative compression is legendary. Andre Dubus
III has written that his father’s story
“Waiting,” about the hollow ache experienced by a woman widowed by the
Korean war, took fourteen months to
write and was more than one hundred
pages in early manuscript form. But
when the story was published in the
Paris Review, it spanned a mere seven
2/6/09 4:08:59 PM
courtesy of the estate of andre dubus
the literary life
Though Dubus slowed down his
writing process in later years and
wrote fewer drafts, he typically pared
back his stories over the course of successive versions. After he had taken
a piece t h rough as ma ny w rit ten
drafts as he could, Dubus would read
the story aloud into a tape recorder,
a practice he began as a student in
Iowa. Dubus said that listening to
t hese record i ngs al lowed h im to
catch details he had missed, such as
repetitions and jarring rhythms. “It’s
physical, less abstract, when you use
your voice and ears,” Dubus said of
his listening method in a 1998 Yale
Review interview. Fiction writer Peter
Orner remembers that Dubus had an
astonishing capacit y for listening.
Orner, the author of The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (Little, Brown,
2006), attended a weekly gathering
of writers that Dubus hosted at his
home every Thursday night during
the later years of his life. “Andre led
by listening—not talking, but listening,” Orner remembers. “I have never
met anybody who listened like Andre.
When you’d read a story on Thursday night, he’d lean back a little in his
chair and close his eyes and listen so
hard. I remember watching him listen
and feeling ashamed I couldn’t listen
like that.”
Yet even as he whittled his stories
down to their cores, Dubus infused
them with both psychological breadth
and emotional immediacy. Typically,
he begins his stories on the cusp of a
powerful incident in a character’s life,
as in the first lines of “The Winter Father”: “The Jackmans’ marriage had
been adulterous and violent, but in its
last days, they became a couple again,
as they might have if one of them were
slowly dying.” Dubus moved beyond
the old adage “show, don’t tell” to create his own authorial maxim: Don’t
tell everything. His flowing, poetic sentences can rush through several years
in three paragraphs before screeching
to a halt and moving through a tenminute conversation with excruciating
detail and insight.
for compassion. His
stories search deeper
into the human soul
t ha n ma ny w r iters
dare reach. There are
moment s when h is
generosit y and tender ness ca n nea rly
overwhelm the reader,
and it is a testament to
his narrative skill that
the stories never collapse into sentimentality. Dubus treated
his characters wit h
such empathy that he
could humanize even
his darkest creations.
His portrayal of Richard St rout, t he antagonist of “Killings”
(and of the movie In
the Bedroom), is a good
After Strout shoots
F r a n k Fo w l e r f o r
sleeping with his exAndre Dubus at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1963.
wife, Frank’s father,
As Dubus’s reputation grew, his Matt, kidnaps Strout with the intenstories were published in literary quar- tion of killing him to avenge his son’s
terlies, from Black Warrior Review to murder. During the kidnapping, Dubus
Ploughshares and the Paris Review, and describes, in agonizing detail, the mioccasionally in magazines such as nutiae of Strout’s tidy apartment: the
Harper’s and the New Yorker. But even greaseless stovetop, the lack of dishes
as major publishing houses waved book in the sink, and, in the bedroom, “the
deals and big advances under his nose socks rolled, the underwear folded and
in exchange for the promise of a novel, stacked.” By focusing on these surprisDubus remained steadfastly dedicated ingly common details in the midst of
to the short story. It was no easy stand such an uncommon moment, the reader
to take for a writer who wanted his sto- is allowed to see Strout as something
ries published in book form. After the far deeper and more complex than a
publication of The Lieutenant, Dubus stand-in for evil. Strout begins to look
waited eight rejection-filled years be- a lot like Matt Fowler: an average man
fore the Boston-based independent who is capable of horrific acts. It is a
publisher David R. Godine published chilling revelation.
his first stor y collection, Separate
“How rare it is these days to encounFlights, in 1975.
ter characters with wills, with a sense
of choice,” John Updike wrote, in the
mid-1980s, of Dubus’s work. Dubus
NDRE Dubus was enamored
with the human condition. trusted his characters so much that
It is not only his devotion he gave his stories over to them. “My
to the short story form that job is only to form the words on the
earned him comparisons to his beloved page as the characters are performChekhov, but his boundless capacity ing their acts,” Dubus told the Yale
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the literary life
Goss Press
Ten strange fictions focus on the
compelling power of place over
people in the old towns, small
villages and still-wild woodlands
of Upstate New York. An isolated
lake conceals a drowned village that
haunts living settlers. The guilty
narrator of a violent adventure
admits: “When we came down from
the mountain, we weren’t the same
as when we came up.”
An inconsequential chapbook about
insignificant challenges…Elisabeth
Stevens has issues with rags, missing
buttons, biting insects, an elastic
Can this writer-artist get a grip?
Review. In fact, he claimed that he
was so helplessly enslaved to the will
of his characters that he rewrote the
ending to “Miranda Over the Valley,”
an excruciating story about abortion,
three times in the hope that Miranda
would act differently—but she would
not. “I didn’t want Miranda to be so
hard,” Dubus said, “but that was all she
would do.”
Miranda is one of many examples
of Dubus’s uncanny ability to create
female characters that seem as though
they were written by a woman. Friend,
admirer, and fellow short story devotee
Tobias Wolff wrote in his afterword to
Andre Dubus: Tributes (Xavier Review
Press, 2001) that Dubus “wrote better
about women than any man of his generation, both from their point of view
and from without. Each of his women
is particular and unexpected, her moral
and physical nature without a shadow
of male fantasy or condescension.”
In “Out of the Snow,” for example, a
wife speaks up when her well-meaning
husband attempts to console her with
a trite and simplistic notion of motherhood. In the story, two men follow
LuAnn Arceneaux home from the grocery store and force their way into her
kitchen. Dubus describes in visceral
language how LuA nn savagely defends herself against what is surely an
attempted rape. Later, LuAnn tells her
husband how she is stunned by the violence she was capable of. Her husband
explains it away as motherly instinct.
“You had to,” he says. “For yourself.
For the children. For me.” But Dubus
does not allow LuAnn to be consoled
by such a clichéd rationale—she interrupts her husband and tells him, “I
didn’t hit those men so I could be alive
for the children, or for you. I hit them
so my blood would stay in my body; so
I could keep breathing.”
The fiction writer Ann Beattie has
long admired Dubus and says his stories go far beyond simply giving female
characters equal attention and power.
“Dubus lets us watch fairly conventional power struggles between men
and women work out unexpectedly,”
31155GossPress.indd 1
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Beattie says, “because there is always the inclusion of fate…everyone
is swept up in something larger than
any individual.” She believes Dubus
gives men and women comparable
authorit y and agency because “it’s
not about who ‘wins,’ but rather it is a
reality that the struggle is undertaken
again and again; the stories are about
how people must make accommodations once they find out there’s no winning. The external world, as Dubus
sees it, is very grim,” Beattie says,
“even with male and female characters
who are articulate and who think they
know what it is they want.”
Time and again, Dubus explored how
normal people struggled with the complexities of their desires. This subject
lies at the heart of Voices From the Moon
(Godine, 1984), his longest novella (it
was actually marketed as a novel) and
very likely his masterpiece.
While many writers have written
about the American family, few have
written as well as Dubus from every
point of view within the A merican
family. He has inhabited his stories
not only in the voices of sons and fathers (“If They Knew Yvonne” and
“A Father’s Story”), but in those of
mothers and daughters, too (“Leslie in California” and “In My Life”).
In Voices From the Moon, Dubus, like
William Faulkner in As I Lay Dying,
uses all of these voices, examining the
story’s central confl ict from multiple
The nine chapters of the 126-page
novella alternate between the viewpoints of R ichie Stowe, a serious
twelve-year-old who plans to become
a priest, and the other members of the
boy’s family. The story takes place
over the course of a single day and is
centered on the revelation that Richie’s divorced father plans to marry the
ex-wife of Richie’s older brother—the
father’s own former daughter-in-law.
Such a plot could easily become soap
opera, but with his plain language and
astute characterization Dubus weaves
a tale that leaves the reader feeling,
if not affection, then at least empa24
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the literary life
thy for every member of the
I n Voices From the Moon,
Dubus balances the themes
and preoccupations that defi ne
his oeuvre—religion, guilt,
compassion, sex, spirituality,
tenderness, acceptance, violence, and morality—and he
does it from the shifting viewpoints of a father, son, mother,
daughter, husband, wife, and
lover. They are normal people
doing mundane things, but
while these characters might
appear simple, they are not
Near the end of the story,
Richie’s long-suffering mother
voices what sound like some
of Dubus’s own philosophies
about people and life. In an
attempt to comfort her eldest
son, who is shocked and distressed that his own father Dubus in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1998.
would marry his ex-wife, the
mother explains that she likes her co- help, an oncoming car traveling nearly
workers because they don’t have any sixty miles an hour struck Dubus and
“delusions” about life. “We don’t have Luis. The young man, only twentyto live great lives,” she says, “we just three, was killed instantly. Dubus was
have to understand and survive the thrown over the car’s hood and landed
ones we’ve got.” This epiphany is the in a crumpled, bleeding mass on the
kind of earnest, audacious blanket of other side—alive but with thirty-four
grace that Dubus was never afraid to broken bones. Moments before the
cast over his characters.
impact, Dubus had pushed Luz out
of harm’s way, likely saving her life.
Yet he did so at great sacrifice: Dubus
H E w inter I f irst read
Dancing After Hours, I did lost his left leg below the knee and his
not k now—and would right leg was crushed to the point of
not unt il I bought his uselessness.
The accident was a massive blow to
collection of essays, Meditations From
a Moveable Chair (Knopf, 1998)—that the ex-marine, who loved physical exDubus was bound to a wheelchair, a ercise (especially running and weight
“cripple,” as he put it, for the last thir- lifting), and who was, in some ways, defined by his physicality. Two years later,
teen years of his life.
On July 23, 1986, while driving Dubus’s third wife left him and took
home from Boston, Dubus stopped to their two young daughters with her.
help Luz and Luis Santiago, a brother Overwhelmed and in continual pain, he
and sister from Puerto Rico who had slipped into a dark depression and, for a
collided with a motorcycle that had time, struggled to write fiction.
Dubus slowly regained his confibeen abandoned on t he highway.
While Dubus struggled to commu- dence by writing essays and through
nicate with the Santiagos, usher the t he support he received from t he
pair off the road, and flag down more writers who gathered every Thursday
dr. edward j. gleason
LL bodwell.indd 25
night at his house. When he did
tackle fiction again, what he
wrote—the stories that would
become Dancing After Hours—
could easily have spiraled into
bitterness and self-pity. Instead,
his work grew even more generous, more empathetic.
a year after
I discovered Danci n g A f t e r H o u r s,
I s le u t h e d o u t a
mailing address for Dubus and
wrote him a letter of gratitude.
A few weeks later I learned that,
at the age of sixty-two, Dubus
had died of heart failure. The
date was February 24, 1999. A
month or so passed, and then
a letter with the return address
“Dubus” eerily appeared in my
mailbox. I nervously opened
it and found that it was from
A nd re D ubu s I I I . He h ad
written to say he had found
my letter, and then he did a beautiful
thing: He thanked me for thanking
his dad.
The first time I met Dubus III in person, he told me about the unexpected
way his father had influenced his art.
“It’s not his fine work,” he told me, “but
seeing him walk daily into his downstairs study in our tiny rented house
and try to write something beautiful
for someone he would probably never
even meet. It’s that image that gave
me permission as a young man to view
writing as a legitimate line of work to
devote one’s life to.”
Andre Dubus cared a great deal for
people. There is no better evidence
than the words he put to paper. The
best of his work leaves us feeling uneasy and vulnerable from the shock of
recognition—nervous that this man
not only knows our secrets, but that he
might understand them better than we
do. Though Dubus himself may have
been as complex as the characters he
created, his stories offer what only
great art can: They provide counsel
for the heart.
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