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Learning to Love the Stories of Andre Dubus

Some years ago, in Venice, my wife and I hired a tour guide to shepherd us through the collections at the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. In the former, he drew our attention to a painting of Mary and the infant Jesus. To my untutored eye, it appeared to be a devout depiction of the Madonna and Child. But we were told that the work was considered blasphemous when it was made, as the pair were not, as tradition demanded, in the exact center of the image. It’s unlikely that I would have seen that on my own. Still, it put me in mind of an old professor of mine, who argued for developing “an original relationship” to the books we studied, by which he seemed to mean that we should come to our own conclusions before entertaining the opinions of professional critics. When you’re told what to look for, he reasoned, you’ll likely find it, and, having found it, you’ll be less likely to notice what you otherwise might have. What we’re talking about here is context, which can either enlighten or blind us. I was grateful for our guide in Venice, but, by the end of the two days we spent in his company, my wife and I began to sense his own blind spots.

I raise this issue because I was in graduate school, trying to become a writer, when I first read Andre Dubus, and my relationship to his stories was largely “original” in the sense that I knew very little about him. I did bring a fair amount of personal context to his work. A lapsed Catholic, I’d been an altar boy for many years and was belatedly discovering that, though I’d successfully flushed most Catholic doctrine from my system, the vocabulary of my former faith—sin, redemption, grace—obstinately remained. I admired the serious way Dubus allowed matters of faith to occupy the center of his fiction, like those Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child. Reading him, I even allowed myself to wonder whether my decision to quit the faith had been precipitous, because, in truth, I missed how warm the church of my youth had been in winter, how cool and dry in summer. The smell of incense, the tinkling of the bell at communion, the sense of an entire community humble in the face of mystery—these were the very elements of faith that Luke Ripley extols in Dubus’s “A Father’s Story,” the soothing rituals that nonbelievers throw out with the doctrinal bath water.

I probably also sensed that such rituals were not so different from the ones writers use to summon the literary muse. Most of us have a favorite time of day to work, a favorite chair, a favorite pen—objects and habits that help us enter that mysterious world we can never possess but are possessed by, a state of consciousness that Dubus insisted has less to do with thought than with instinct. When I first read Dubus’s stories, I was struck by their uncompromising honesty. I recognized in his plain, simple diction a debt to Hemingway, whose style I had during my long apprenticeship admired and flirted with, hoping that I might find in such speech an honesty I feared my own stories lacked.

Later, after publishing my own books, I periodically returned to my favorite Dubus stories (“Killings,” “Townies,” “The Pretty Girl,” “A Father’s Story”), finding in them other things to admire, though by then my relationship to his fiction was no longer quite so “original.” Over the years, I’d crossed paths with writers who’d known Dubus well, and who provided additional context. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant, generous teacher. He also had a habit of taking as lovers his more attractive female undergraduate students. I had to squint at this behavior, remind myself that he was of a different generation, and that not so long ago such behavior was common and tolerated, perhaps even admired. What mattered, I told myself, was the stories, and these I still loved. Which was why, when I heard of the terrible highway accident that put Dubus in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, I grieved, and grieved again a decade later, when I heard that he had died.

But, at that point, I had not yet met and become fast friends with his son Andre Dubus III, whose heartbreaking memoir, “Townie,” radically altered my perception of his father’s fiction. The younger Dubus grew up in Newburyport and Haverhill with his mother and his siblings, in grinding poverty. Despite “Townie” ’s terrifying description of that poverty, and of the violence of the author’s adolescence, the memoir also contains a loving portrait of his father, who, at the time, was living just across the river, in Bradford, where he taught creative writing. How was it possible that this father, who saw his children most weekends, could be so blind to the poverty they were living in? How could he look at the boy who bore his name and not see that he lived in a state of terror and deprivation? How could he feel so little for the woman who had borne his children, and now, as a single mother lacking the necessary resources to raise them, had thrown up her hands in defeat?

Unable to square this context with my “original” admiration, I found myself rereading Dubus’s stories with a sinking and ungenerous heart. When the little boy in “The Winter Father” chases his departing dad’s car down the street, crying, “You bum! You bum!,” I saw not a fictional character but my friend. When, in other stories, divorced fathers claimed not to be able to abandon their children, I smelled hypocrisy, and, in the more Catholic stories, where the protagonists use the notion of original sin to excuse selfish behaviors they make no real effort to change, I sniffed it again. My growing disaffection even altered my assessment of the elder Dubus’s style and voice, in particular his debt to Hemingway. When one character suggests to his young girlfriend that they go to Boston, “to Casa Romero and have one hell of a dinner,” I cringed, and cringed again every time one of Dubus’s tough-guy protagonists descended into the sort of macho, romantic self-pity for which Hemingway males are so justly known. Here, I told myself, is a derivative writer who, even in mid-career, is unable to transcend his literary influences. I’d come to see a man I’d once considered a paragon of honesty as fundamentally dishonest.

What does one do with unwanted context? I suspected there was more to my response than an ethical dilemma, and that the more was personal. Not long after reading these stories and judging their author, I went back to work, determined not just to give them a more rigorous reading but also to examine my earlier, visceral reaction to them. Best to begin, I reasoned, with those matters least likely to raise context issues—style, voice, and literary influence. Sure, the debt to Hemingway was undeniable, especially in dialogue. But there were other, less obvious influences, too, like Faulkner, whose style is lush, expansive, and Southern. We think of Dubus as a New England writer—that’s where he spent most of his writing life and where he set the majority of his stories—but he grew up in Louisiana, and the South is ambiently present in his fiction. Dubus’s debt to Faulkner has to do with inclination. It has to do with a willingness, even a need, to burrow deep into the consciousness of characters who, unlike their creator, are too shy or inarticulate or lacking in self-awareness to speak for themselves, and to give such people voice.

Take, for instance, the title character of Anna. In the story’s opening paragraphs, long before we learn that she and her boyfriend, Wayne, will rob a store, Anna Griffin is revealed to us not in terms of what she has but in terms of what she lacks. Anna is a cashier at the Sunnycorner store, and she envies the put-together women who work at the nearby bank and while away their lunch hours thumbing through magazines. After the robbery, she and Wayne go to the mall and buy many of the things they’ve longed for: a color TV, a record player, a vacuum cleaner. The story’s brilliance lies in the fact that finally owning these things doesn’t diminish Anna’s sense of poverty—it deepens it, bringing home to her just how much there is in the world to want. The most heartbreaking detail is the vacuum cleaner, whose cord is longer than it needs to be to clean their tiny apartment. Without being able to articulate it, Anna discovers that their new wealth doesn’t address the root cause of their suffering. When she confesses to a man at a place called Timmy’s that what she’d really like is to tend bar there, his response—“You’d be good at it”—haunts her long after their mall purchases have been unpacked. Her deepest poverty resides in her fear that she’ll never be good at anything, never be worthy of what others assume is their due. It’s a revelation worthy of Chekhov, a writer Dubus often taught and clearly revered.

The point here is that noting a writer’s influences isn’t the same as suggesting that he lacks originality. Dubus’s stories feel as fresh today as they did when I first read them, three decades ago. One reason is the delight he takes in playing off readers’ genre expectations. Conventional robbery stories, for example, are almost always concerned with whether the thieves will get caught. Here it’s the exact opposite. Dubus doesn’t care whether Anna and Wayne get caught; not getting caught actually deepens their predicament. Similarly, “Townies,” which at first appears to be the story of a murdered college girl, turns out to be about the unexpected link between the campus cop who finds her body and the boy who kills her, both of whom have been excluded from the privileged girl’s world by virtue of their class. Clear conflicts that get established early—so that the reader feels oriented and the drama can be heightened—are key to conventional stories. Dubus’s conflicts, by contrast, are often revealed late and sometimes resolved mere moments later. He doesn’t care much whether we feel oriented. He’s here to offer not comfort but truth.

And what truth is that, exactly? I suspect it’s the same one that Thomas Hardy insisted we grasp, nearly a century earlier—that is, just how small and powerless we are against the forces aligned against us. We read Dubus’s stories the same way we read “Jude the Obscure”: not to find out what happens next but rather to watch our deepest fears—about ourselves and a brutal, uncaring world—realized. For example, Dubus’s adulterers (adultery is, for him, the most common and lethal of sins) know that what they’re doing is wrong. They’re simply unable to repress their desires, or even to act in their own self-interest. In “Killings,” Frank, the main character’s beloved son, knows that his love for another man’s wife is dangerous, but love easily trumps both his reason and his morality. Fate rules here, making a mockery of both free will and chance. What’s worse is that, as readers, we are made to feel complicit, for these men are as God made them. This is the bad news Dubus feels compelled to share with us: that we are unequal to many of the most important tasks life sets before us. We are too small and the world too large.

I haven’t said much about “A Father’s Story” to this point, but the time has now come. It’s one of the finest stories ever written by an American. The story’s genius resides in its first-person narrator, whose voice is so powerful, so hypnotizing, that the reader either forgets or doesn’t really care that, for three-quarters of the story, nothing happens. Once again, we’re offered no dramatic hook, no clear conflict to keep us turning pages. Dubus simply talks to us through his protagonist, Luke Ripley, as if our interest in a “big-gutted, gray-haired guy, drinking tea and staring out at the dark woods across the road” were a foregone conclusion. As if the unvarying routine of Luke’s life and the crushing loneliness he feels after his wife leaves him were a time-honored method of holding a reader’s attention. As if this old fart’s leisurely musings on God and fishing and hunting and baseball and marriage were all any reader had a right to expect from fiction. The story has no business working. By the time something dramatic finally does happen, the reader is actually surprised, having come to terms with the possibility that, if anything were going to happen, it would have already.

But then, almost before we know it, the story is over, its conclusion as rich and as satisfying as anything in contemporary fiction, leaving us to marvel at the alchemy by which such narrative base metal has been spun into pure gold. What the author has crafted is, we realize, a one-trick story, but the trick is the only one that really matters. He has made us care—about a big-gutted guy who talks to God because there’s nobody else around. Luke Ripley has been instructed to love God more than the world, a world that contains our wives and lovers, our sons and daughters, our good work, our pain and loss and struggle. What Luke wants God to understand is that this is simply not possible. Not for him. Probably not for any of us.

I was in my twenties and not yet a father the first time I read the story, and, at the end, when Luke makes his peace with the God he believes he’s disappointed, I wept. Thirty-odd years later—just three weeks ago—I reread it and wept again, for the author I’d once loved and now loved again, for his son and my friend, and for my own father, who was absent during my young life much as Andre’s was. Which is probably why, I now realize, I briefly flirted with disdain and disregard for a great writer. Because, years earlier, I’d done exactly what my friend Andre did. I forgave my wayward father. I did so, moreover, for the pleasure of his company, and because I could easily imagine doing the same wrong thing one day and wanting forgiveness myself. I thought I’d forgiven my father without reservation. I had not. Some residual resentment remained, and so, without even realizing what I was doing, I offloaded it onto a convenient surrogate.

Edward Hopper once remarked that, in all his paintings, he was just trying to paint himself. Maybe that’s what all artists and writers do, whether they realize it or not. We offer ourselves. Here I am, we say, not fully comprehending the nature or value of the offering, only that it’s all we have.

This essay was drawn from the introduction to “The Winter Father: Collected Short Stories and Novellas,” which is out this June from David R. Godine, Publisher.

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