A writer’s writer and the inevitability of bad times
To be called a “writer’s writer,” as the late Andre Dubus has been labeled, is at best an ambiguous tribute. It suggests that such an artist produces sentences so subtle and handsomely crafted that only another writer, trained to notice such things, would be able truly to appreciate him or her. Unfortunately, it also hints these qualities will likely result in a relatively small audience, something which David Godine’s reissue of Dubus’s short fiction seeks to remedy by introducing a new generation to his work.
Dubus published his first book of stories (a novella, among them) in 1975 and quickly built a reputation as one of America’s best practitioners of short fiction. In 1986, driving home late from Boston he went to the aid of a stranded motorist, was hit by passing car, and subsequently lost one leg and the use of the other. With some heroism, he lived and continued to write until his death in 1999, leaving behind seven collections of stories and novellas, two of essays, and one novel.
From the outset of Dubus’s career Godine was responsible for publishing him, supplying readers with handsome editions of the majority of his canon — Dubus would switch to the larger, richer Knopf near the end of his career due to financial concerns. Now the stories and novellas have been gathered in two volumes (a third is in the works) with appreciative introductions by Ann Beattie and Richard Russo. In her introduction to volume 1, which contains Dubus’s first collections, “Separate Flights’’ and “Adultery and Other Choices,’’ Beattie touches on perhaps the central impulse in Dubus’s fiction by noting how easy it is for writers to “corner their characters” by making them submit to one or another humiliation, loss, failure. Although Dubus’s stories are filled with disasters — often involving marriages — in the best of his work “the story seems to have its own uncontainable energy and trajectory; it declares the inevitability of letting bad things happen.”
This “inevitable” quality of life that the stories so often explore, is wholly connected to Dubus’s religious commitment as a Catholic, to taking human life seriously in the unhesitating belief that fiction is, or should be, about real people, usually in one or another kind of trouble. For Dubus this means the language of his stories is at the service of something outside itself. He is a “referential” writer, rather than a post-modernist one whose concern is with the tricks and illusions language plays. Unlike the American novelists Dubus is most indebted to — Hemingway and Faulkner — his language can sometimes feel “flat-footed” (Beattie’s word), not calling attention to itself; often we forget we are reading sentences but are put rather into more direct connection with the character’s thoughts and feelings.
Although some of the stories are set in Dubus’s native Louisiana or elsewhere, the bulk of them take place in his adopted homeland of northeastern Massachusetts — Haverhill, Newburyport, the Merrimack Valley — where he spent most of his professional life. It is a place that would become his special country, full of abandoned mills, boarded-up store fronts, and Bradford College where he taught writing for many years.
Dubus’s characters are resolutely lower middle- or working-class family men who can’t make things go right. “The Jackmans’ marriage had been adulterous and violent,” begins “The Winter Father,” the namesake story of volume 2, which combines Dubus’s third and forth collections, “Finding a Girl in America’’ and “The Times Are Never So Bad.’’ In “A Father’s Story” the narrator speculates hesitantly about his best friend, an Irish priest named Father Paul, the “Irish do seem happiest when they are dealing with misfortune or guilt, either their own or somebody else’s, and if you think you’re not a victim of either one, you can count on certain Irish priests to try to change your mind.”
Though not himself Irish, dealing with misfortune or guilt is a trademark of Dubus’s work. In his introduction to volume 2 of the stories, Richard Russo speaks of him as “a brilliant, generous teacher, who had, alas, an unfortunate habit of taking as lovers his more attractive female undergraduate students.” But Dubus’s marital career — three wives, six children, among them the writer Andre Dubus III, with whom Dubus Sr. had a complex relationship — was anything but frivolous. The misfortune or guilt accruing from marriage and its discontents is treated seriously indeed. In describing the kind of “truth” Dubus’s stories offer, Russo invokes, unobviously but relevantly, Thomas Hardy’s final novel, “Jude the Obscure,’’ as a comparable instance of fiction that shows “just how small and powerless we are against the forces aligned against us.”
Yet the feelings evoked by these often grim stories affect us differently than does the unrelieved gloom spread over Jude. From the main categories into which Dubus’s fiction may be divided — stories about a youthful protagonist, Paul Clement; the Marine Corps; women in painful situations — I find myself most affected by ones in which fatherhood is a central concern. Of these “The Winter Father” and “A Father’s Story” are representative of Dubus at his best.
In “The Winter Father” the divorced Peter Jackman tries to come to terms with the allotted time he will spend with his two children: dinner on Wednesday night; weekend outings to movies or restaurants. Although as a married father he had “taught and disciplined” them, Peter can no longer do this with confidence, but speaks “as though to another man’s children, for he was afraid that if he scolded as he had before, the day would be spoiled, they would not have the evening at home, the sleeping in the same house, to heal them.”
In “A Father’s Story” perhaps as gripping a story as any he wrote, Luke Ripley, after he has “lost [his] family” to divorce, protects his 20-year-old daughter by covering up the fact she has accidentally killed with her car a nameless young man. Luke’s guilt is intensified when he realizes that he would not have gone to this extent for one of his sons, and as a Catholic he conceals that fact from Father Paul, his fate rendered in ultimate, final terms: “I do not feel the peace I once did: not with God, nor the earth, nor anyone on it.”
An epigraph to “The Times Are Never So Bad’’ invokes St. Thomas More: “The times are never so bad but that a good man can live in them.” A cynical reader, thinking of Dubus’s fiction overall, might be tempted to rewrite it thusly: The times are never so bad but that Dubus can make them worse. But with Hardy in mind remember the line from one of his poems: “If a way to a Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.” In such stories as “Separate Flights,” “The Fat Girl,” “Killing,” and many others the worst is looked at and a better sometimes painfully imagined through the unflinching voice of Dubus’s art.
WE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE:
Collected Short Stories and Novellas, Volume I
By Andre Dubus
Godine, 459 pp., paperback, $18.95
THE WINTER FATHER:
Collected Short Stories and Novellas, Volume II
By Andre Dubus
Godine, 421 pp., paperback, $18.95
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William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English emeritus at Amherst College.