'Nothing confines me': the stories of Andre Dubus

I first came across the name Andre Dubus in Richard Ford's magnificent compendium, The New Granta Book of the American Short Story.   Here among the familiar names such as Grace Paley, John Updike,  Richard Yates and Tobias Wolff,  those great masters of the form, were (to me) new names like Jumpha Lahiri, Nell Freudenberger - and Andre Dubus.   It was the beautifully understated tragedy of Bharati Mukherjee's 'The management of grief' that moved me most, but I was haunted by Dubus's   'Killings'.   A couple, fearing their son's killer will get too light a sentence, resolve to exact their own justice.   A lesser writer would have recognised their characters' desire for revenge; they would have seen the killer's humanity, his vulnerability when confronted with his own death, and drawn back, unable to go through with their plans.   But Matt Fowler and his friend, Willis   do not and we are left to wonder whether this eye for an eye will bring Matt, and his wife Ruth, the comfort they seek.   (The story was adapted for the film In the Bedroom.)

In Paris shortly afterwards I visited,   as I always do,   the legendary bookshop Shakespeare and Co, always relieved to find it still there. There I came across a fine second-hand copy of Dubus's 1983 collection, The Times Are Never So Bad, for the ridiculous price of 5 euros.   From then I was hooked.   I read everything of his I could get my hands on,   six volumes of stories and novellas, a novel and two collections of essays and memoirs, and when I came to the end, I felt bereft.   It was even more of a shock to learn that this man I felt I had been getting to know had been dead for several years.

Dubus was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1936,   educated at a Christian Brothers school, served for several years in the Marine Corps rising to the rank of captain, graduated from the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa - where one of his teachers was Richard Yates - and taught and wrote and struggled to make a living.   His first published fiction his only novel, The Lieutenant (1967),   drew on his experience in the Marines where   he had, he said, his first confrontation about injustice and hypocrisy with a real bureaucrat, 'a man who used a swivel chair, the passive voice and precedents and   rules and procedures to turn away from the lonely complexity of the human heart'.   Dubus spent the rest of his life investigating precisely this complexity, both in his personal life - he married three times and was father to   six children - and in his short stories and novellas.

Dubus's stories are, I believe, profoundly ethical.   I do not mean by this that they have a moral or that they preach in any way.   Far from it.   There is a genuine compassion at play here, an extraordinary imaginative ability to stand in the place of so many people, so different from himself, combined with an unusual tenderness.   People are to be understood, not mocked or made fun of or condescended to. There is no detachment, ironic or otherwise, but a true recognition of and genuine respect for the humanity of his characters.   These are qualities he shares with EL Doctorow, although Doctorow has favoured the form of the novel over the short story.   His work is an exemplary proof of Doctorow's proposition,   'Stories propose life as something of moral consequence.   They distribute the suffering so that it can be borne.'

Rarely is judgment made and when it is   it is   deserved because, for instance, the person concerned is living in bad faith, like Kevin in 'Leslie in California', a tale of merely four and half pages, about the self deception of a violent man.    'It wasn't you ...I was drunk ...somebody crazy takes over,'   Kevin tells Leslie after hitting her so badly the night before that her eye will not open.   Leslie thinks about all the potential weapons in a house - 'knives, cooking forks, ice picks, hammers,   skillets, clavers, wine bottles' - and wonders   if she'll be 'one of those women. I think of this without fear, like I'm reading in the paper about somebody else dead in her kitchen.'

'The times are never so bad that a good man can not live in them' - Thomas More's words that Dubus used as an epigraph to the collection I came across,    might stand as the epigraph to his work as a whole.   It is not that the people in his stories are   good in any ordinary sense of the term but that they struggle to make sense of their lives and what it has thrown at them, they struggle to be their better selves.  

In 'A father's story' ,   the narrator, Luke Ripley, finds himself 'having to face and forgive my own failures'. He envies his friend the priest:   'I thought what good work he had.   I have no calling.   It is for me to keep horses.'    Ripley makes us feel the agony and despair of the end of his marriage and the loss of his children, a loss both assuaged and aggravated by the long summer visits of his daughter Jennifer.   Ripley enjoys Jennifer's presence and the life and laughter she brings to his house, but he has to come to terms with Jennifer's maturity, her becoming a sexual being. 'What bothers me is my certainty about it,   just from watching her walk across a room or light a cigarette or pour milk on cereal.'   Jennifer accidentally kills a man while driving late at night and her father urges her to secrecy, unable to make her face the consequences of going to the police, all the time knowing he would not do the same for his sons.    He realises too that it is something he cannot bring himself to tell his friend the priest.

Relationships are made and unmade, love is found and lost.   Sex brings people together and blows them apart.   (Dubus is rare, I think, among modern writers in seeing the power of sex in our lives, women as well as men, and in being able to write about in a way that is not voyeuristic or risible or sentimental.)   Terrible things happen - a man is crushed under a horse, a doctor out walking in he country is unable to save a child trapped under a rock, a pilot is forced to commit suicide to avoid military disgrace on account of his sexuality - and people do terrible things to one another - a woman is raped at knifepoint as she gets out of her car at home, a student is killed by the boyfrind she has just rejected.   But people survive and they try to learn,   And they hope.   This is not some wishful thinking on Dubus's part, a generalised optimism.   His characters are   specific people in specific situations, and if what they confront is unfamiliar to us it is still within the ralm of the human.   'The perception of a character in a story' he once wrote, 'written with compassion is, both for the reader and the writer, a perception closer to divine than human'. mc 65

There are no stylistic pyrotechnics in Dubus's work, no literary tricksiness, no mannerisms.   This is the kind of prose that seems simple or straightforward only because of the work that has gone into it.    'What is art',   Dubus once asked, ' if not a concentrated and impassioned effort to make something   of the little we have, the little we see.'   [mc 16] He is one of those 'magicians of the real', in EL Doctorow's phrase,   'who write to make their language invisible'.    The result is
a quiet poetry as in some of his arresting beginnings:

' 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. ('The Winter Father');   'Their dark civilian clothes defied him.' ('The Dark Men');   'My name is Luke Ripley and here is what I call my life.' ('A Father's Story');   'I had my hair in curlers all afternoon the day they electrocuted Sonny Broussard.   Or the day before, I guess, because they did it at midnight. ('In My Life')

Driving home from Boston in the early hours in July 1986, Dubus stopped to help a brother and sister from Puerto Rico whose car had hit an abandoned motorcycle on the highway.   A few moments later Dubus was hit by another car. As it came towards him, he pushed the woman out of the way and in doing so saved her life, but her brother died instantly.    Dubus himself nearly died;   his   life was saved only by the skill of the doctors who operated on him for several hours.    He lost one leg and the use of the other and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

I think often of this terrible story and and what it was that brought Dubus to stop when he could simply have driven home to his wife and children, as most of us would probably have done.   Dubus himself wrote much later that such acts of intervention were little to do with courage or goodness and much more to do with whether people felt they knew what to do in the situation   He felt he did and because he had saved someone's life he never regretted stopping,

For the next 13 years Dubus lived the life of what he would never stop calling a cripple, a word he used without a hint of self-pity, but refusing any euphemism to make others feel better.    Once, coming out of the shower he had to watch, in utter helplessness, as his baby daughter stuck one of her fingers into the cogwheel of an exercise bicycle being used by her older sister.    His marriage (his third) came to an end and the time he had with his children was reduced to what he felt was nothing.    'Each day', he wrote, 'is a struggle against sorrow, with each physical action in the empty house showing me again and again what I have lost'. [mc 100]

Admirers such as   EL Doctorow,   Jayne Anne Phillips, Tim O'Brien and Tobias Wolff   - 'my dear friend ...one of my masters' he said of Dubus - did readings to raise money to pay his medical bills and support his family.   Many readers sent cheques.   It made me feel, he said, 'during a very bad time, that I had hundreds of friends I didn't even know'.

After the accident Dubus hosted a writers' workshop at his home.   The fiction writer Peter Omer described it:   "Andre led by listening--not talking, but listening.   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."

He also did a reading workshop for young women, victims of different kinds of abuse, from a local protective custody institution.   Every Monday they would come with a member of staff to his home and for seven years he read and then they did.   In his essay,   'A Hemingway story',   Dubus describes the experience of reading to the group Hemingway's 'In another country', a story he has taught many, many times,   and realising,   after 'my own five years of agony' that every one of the major's most ordinary actions - getting out of bed, brushing his teeth, putting on his uniform -   is a movement away from suicide.   This is a story, he realises, of the defeat of despair.   The girls 'happily watched me discover a truth; or watched a truth discover me, when I was ready for it.'   [mc58]

And he continued to write, producing two collections of essays and memoirs,   Broken Vessels (1991) and Meditations from a Movable Chair (1998).   But trying to write stories after the accident was, he once said, like chasing a blowing piece of paper on a windy playground.   It is remarkable that he wrote them at all, even more so that he produced the wondrous stories brought together in Dancing After Hours (1996).     This was the first and only one of his books to be published by a large publisher, Knopf.   Until then he had been with the small Boston-based David R Godine.   But, desperate for money, he was forced to move.   Godine, it should be said,   bore him no resentment and has continued to keep his fine editions of his work in print.

These 14 stories are as good as anything Dubus had done before, maybe,by virtue of their economy and compression, even better    The same themes - sex, violence, longing, desire, ageing, dying - are here.   In 'The timing of sin'   a woman almost commits adultery but is saved by the fact she cannot get her jeans off before her conscience takes hold; in 'The last moon' a young school counsellor, regretful at the marriage she has made, plots the murder of her husband with her pupil lover; in 'The colonel's wife', the colonel, crippled since a horse fell on top of him, realises his wife has a lover.   In fact it is not the first: 'Now his heartbreak was like the pain in his legs; it as part of him, but he could breathe with it, listen and see with it.'

The final story, which gives the collection its title, is a tour de force in imaginative and sensuous creation.   Hardy anything happens but at the end of its 40 pages we feel we have been in Jeff's bar, listening to John Coltrane and Roland Kirk and Frank Sinatra, watching Kay flirt with Rita, and Emily the bar tender mix drinks and smoke cigarettes.    We have begun to know their stories and the stories of the people who have come in for the evening and who will stay behind after hours, Drew in the wheelchair and Alvin his helper.   We begin to know something of their desires and hopes and fears.   We have entered their lives.

'Nothing confines me,' the poet Carl Dennis says in   'Spring letter'and this is true of Dubus too.      Everything is possible in his work (as it is in Denni's) because it is possible in life.   And his work helps us to see beyond ourselves as stories do for Emily in 'Dancing after hours'   who makes herself read every night, 'the sorrows in the darkness remained, but she was consoled.'

On 24 February 1999, while taking a shower, Andre Dubus died of heart failure.   He was 62. His stories, with their humanity and wisdom, remain as extraordinary celebrations of ordinary lives.     "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."

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Books by Andre Dubus include:

Selected Stories (1988)

Dancing After Hours (1996)

Broken Vessels (1991)

Meditations from a Movable Chair (1998)

 

 

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