Dubus sets his tales along the Massachussets/New Hampshire border and seems to have turned it into his own Yoknapatawpha County. But what is really distinctive is the spiritual territory that he has carved out with these stories of decent men trying to be true to Catholic beliefs in the face of difficult circumstances. The men at the center of the stories are entrepreneurs, as opposed to professionals or workmen. They are brawny brawling types, fond of beer and cigarettes and women, love their wives (even ex-wives) and children deeply and they are immersed in the rituals of Catholicism. Here is the father of A Father's Story:
I go to bed early and sleep well and wake at four forty-five, for an hour of silence. I never want to get out of bed then, and every morning I know I can sleep for another four hours, and still not fail at any of my duties. But I get up, so have come to believe my life can be seen in miniature in that struggle in the dark of morning. While making the bed and boiling water for coffee, I talk to God: I offer Him my day, every act of my body and spirit, my thoughts and moods, as a prayer of thanksgiving, and for Gloria and my children and my friends and two women I made love with after Gloria left. This morning offertory is a habit from my boyhood in a Catholic school; or then it was a habit, but as I kept it and grew older it became a ritual. Then I say the Lord's Prayer, trying not to recite it, and one morning it occurred to me that a prayer, whether recited or said with concentration, is always an act of faith.
Most of the characters in the stories are similar--while recognizing their own limitations, they are making the effort to be good Christians, or, at the least, good people. In this story, the Father has reached a point in his life where he feels that he has achieved some sense of inner peace. But this peace is destroyed when his daughter comes to him for help and he embarks on a course that, while he feels it is justified, he knows is wrong.
In Voices from the Moon, the father falls in love with his son's ex-wife and over the course of the novel must confront both of his sons, his daughter and his ex-wife with this revelation. The recurring image in the story is that of communion. Each character has certain rituals, involving Mass or alcohol or cigarettes or food, wherein they seek an inner solitude in which they can be at peace. The father, in particular, is no longer a practicing Catholic, but he has built his home into a virtual monastery, with a deck, surrounded by woods, where he goes at night to think and dream. For him, the most troubling aspect of his predicament is the self-knowledge that he has transgressed the rules that make it possible for family members to trust one another and that, therefore, he could lose his son.
The stories are a real pleasure to read; it is all too rare in modern fiction to find writing that is so explicitly morally focussed. The certainty with which Dubus conveys the conviction that some things are right and others are wrong, even if we (or his characters) can't always measure up to the standard, is especially refreshing in this age of moral relativism.
One warning: there is a subtle aspect of misogyny to the stories that, while totally consistent with Catholic tradition, may be troubling to some readers. In both of these stories, men betray their own sense of what is right because of women. The recurrence of this theme is understandable and makes sense in the context of Dubus' broader moral outlook, but readers should be aware that it exists.
on March 6, 2002
I was 17 and a senior in high school when I came across an article in the paper about a series of benefit readings that were being held to raise money to pay for the medical bills for Andre Dubus. I called a number and got a schedule, and then agonized over which Saturday reading I would attend - should I go to hear Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow or John Irving and Stephen King? I ended up choosing the latter (mainly because I had a crush on John Irving!)
In the weeks leading up to the reading, I thought it might be a good idea to find out more about this Andre Dubus, so I went to the bookstore and bought Adultery and Other Choices. I was astonished. I immediately borrowed every Andre Dubus book that was available at the library and devoured every word. I'm a New Englander and was raised in the Catholic church, and I related to Mr. Dubus' stories.
At the reading that Saturday, I had the honor of meeting Mr. Dubus. He was in a hospital bed, and was obviously still suffering from the accident, but he was smiling and seemed to be a little surprised at the size of the crowd. He was gracious when I thanked him for his stories. It makes me sad that there will be no new Andre Dubus stories, but I am so grateful for the ones he gave us while he was here, all too briefly.
on February 28, 1999
Andre Dubus died in late February, 1999. Through NPR, I was introduced to his work the day after his death, and I was intrigued by the way his words worked. I picked this book to learn more of his writing. This is a collection of 23 short stories, set in Boston, California and other places.
Dubus writes of people who are flawed, though not fatally. They struggle mightily with their hurts and fears, some of which is self-inflicted. In the end, despite some darkness in the stories, the characters find some form of release, or grace. The flaws remain, though the characters find a sort of redemption. Interestingly, even the redemption is flawed. No one lives happily ever after, but then, they don't need to.
"The Winter Father," a 20 page story, is about a recently divorced father, his children, and his new lover. There are no surprises in the story, but Dubus' writing draws one into the scenes. It's easy to imagine how it happens, and why. The father is flawed, yes, but we emphathize with his struggle to figure out his life. In him, spiritual contemplation and earthy smells roll together. There are glimpses of insight, but no magic bullet to make it all better.
"Graduation" is a ten page story of a woman who lives with her hidden past. There's tension in who she was and who she needs to be. A dysfunctional past sexual history is a cloud, always hanging overhead. The details are superb, setting scenes with fleeting images and cues. Dubus hints, pokes, and nudges and the unspoken becomes obvious. The lead character is hardly a paragon of virtue; nonetheless, we can relate to her aspirations and her dark past.
on October 9, 2000
Forget the minimalist wastelands created by Ray Carver. The real genius working in the past quarter-century (and getting much, much less acclaim) was Andre Dubus.
Shunning the hard-edged weariness of his contemporaries, Dubus filled his stories with life and faith and passion. This collection is a fine introduction to his writings and contains one of my all-time favorites with "Voices From the Moon." All the stories are accessible and as emotionally compelling as anything you'll read. There aren't words enough to praise.
on May 19, 1999
At this point in my life, I have one major regret. I never sent Andre Dubus the letter I started to write many times, telling him how important his work was to me. This book is a very good collection of his amazing work. He tells very simple, beautiful stories that have a profound ability to resonate because you think, "I've been there" and yet the characters are very well-defined and often not the usual short story characters. I recommend Adultery, Voice from the Moon, The Fat Girl, Graduation, The Pretty Girl. Buy this book, you will not regret it....
on December 2, 2010
Andre Dubus led a long, arduous life. He witnessed murders of family members and spent much of his life confined to a wheelchair. Like some of the world's most brilliant writers (Kafka comes to mind), Dubus was able to transform his personal agony into pathos. His characters are at once enormously life-like and bitterly sweet. Sometimes the prose dissolves into talk of wrathed souls and yearning hearts, without feeling cloying or saccharine, a great feat for any writer. Much like Raymond Carver (although a bit more detailed), Dubus is able to craft an entire life in the span of 10-30 pages.
He is a character writer, so don't expect bombastic plot lines or clear-cut resolutions. Instead we are treated to staid slices-of-life, usually spanning only a few days. Standouts include the seminal "Killings" which was turned into an excellent film by Todd Field entitled "In The Bedroom". The story concerns a father's hunt for his son's killer. It's all surprisingly easy, but it leaves a mark on the father's soul. Similarly, in the story "Rose", we meet a character through the foil of an unnamed narrator who frequents, like many of Dubus' denizens, Timmy's bar, a ramshackle but friendly establishment. Rose has been wronged by her ex-husband and the grim details of their final night together gave me chills, purely from an entertainment standpoint. When the smoke settles however, you realize how scarred Rose was by her ordeal- mentally as well as physically. I really felt her pain.
Of course there are some humorous, touching stories laced between the stories of battered women and murder. "If You Knew Yvonne" is about a boy's struggle with "self-abuse" conflicting with his faith (Dubus was a very devout man), culminating in his use of a young lady to fulfill his desires to point that she remarks, "It's all we ever do, Harry, it's all we ever do..." In context, this is a deeply heartbreaking line. I could really identify. We've all had relationships where we used people and then moved on, only to regret it later.
There are some throwaway pieces such as the first story and some stories about soldiers that didn't interest me, but overall this is a really poignant and well-styled collection, minimum yet multi-layered, dark yet enduring. Dubus' character sketches mesh with the hurting world and draw to life a hope in humanity.
on September 18, 2006
I was unable to finish the book all in one shot because I found I needed to stop and reflect in between stories, so moved was I--mostly because Dubus had a way of taking our simple understandings of the world--juxtaposing violence and innocence, faith and the faithless, priests and adulterers, sinners and the redeemed, the dead and the living--and making them complex.
I was bowled over by some of the first stories in the selection, "Killings" and "The Pretty Girl", which take horrible, violent situations and try to make some sense of them by offering the protagonists the opportunity for revenge. But the satisfaction in that revenge is fleeting for it takes almost as much out of those who have acted out of revenge than the original crime did.
"If They Knew Yvonne" is another story of revenge--except this time it is a young man who at one point seeks to wash away his sin (masturbation) by doing himself physical harm. He does not like that he is weak in his body and seems to believe that his sin taints the rest of his life. That is until a priest sets him straight. In the end, he is left reflecting on his two young nephews and hoping for a better understanding for them.
At his best, I think, is Dubus when he took the POV of a woman or girl. In "Anna" , the protagonist, Anna Griffin age 21, helps her boyfriend, Wayne, to rob a drugstore and is then weighed down by guilt (although she never names it as such--either she is incapable, unaware or avoiding the truth). After the robbery, Anna and Wayne go to their local bar and get drunk--out of a sense of exhilaration and fear. In a poignant moment, Anna walks outside to clear her head and briefly reveals her youth and, perhaps, her sense of hopefulness (which one imagines will never be fully realized)--almost as though she is reborn. With the money they have stolen, Anna and Wayne buy a bunch of things at the mall (instead of filling their fridge). But neither of them can fully enjoy these things as they imagined they would. They are still the same, poor desperate couple but with a vacuum cleaner, television and stereo. It would be easy to project their path as one of disaster, but Anna's hopefulness in the end leaves the door open for a breakthrough. In the Laundromat, she washes their clothes and seems to cleanse them both of their sins and bring them back to the beginning.
"A Father's Story" is the last story in the book and the only one I had read previously. It is deserving of its location and an intense and moving story--once again how man can become his own God and thus be forgiven for what he does to protect his children.
Still, the story that left me most breathless was the second to last one, "Adultery." It is a complex story of a husband--Hank (a writer)--and wife--Edith--who have fallen into an open marriage (the husband sort of springs it on her several years in that he believes in fidelity but not monogamy). For a few years, Edith takes revenge on Hank by taking several lovers, but he is nonplussed and brings his own girlfriends by the house on occasion. It is not until Edith commits adultery with the ex-priest Joe--whose frail body comes to embody their sin--that she is awakened. It is when Joe becomes ill with cancer and has his final point of communion (the night before he is admitted to the hospital for good they have sex one last, fevered time) that Edith realizes what she must do--still it takes a while for her realization to live and it is not until the very end that she speaks it: she will divorce Hank--thus signaling the death of her true love. She sacrifices their marriage to condone for the sins they have all committed.
What is most beautiful about Dubus's writing is his love of his characters. He seems not to judge them. He seems to see their faults, allow them their failings, ask that they redeem themselves and then offer them forgiveness. He is, then, their God--but not a pure God, not a God without sin himself. A God who can empathize because, in the end, that's all we really have that makes us human.
on April 23, 1999
This book contains the most amazing stories that I have ever read. Dubus writes about people of all ages dealing with issues like death, religion, and relationships; yet this description isn't enough. His themes are huge, but not overbearing or contrived. You'll love his characters for both their flaws and their virtues, and learn something about yourself even from stories dealing with things you've never experienced. I can't describe his writing in any way that doesn't sound cliche; yet, reading his stories, even old themes are new again under his treatment. His characters are so real that I almost expect them to be living down the street from me; without crushing the reader under unnecessary details, Dubus gives his characters a sense of past and reality that is unlike the ability of any other writer I have come across. I can't say enough about this book; don't pass it up. Dubus is amazing.
on August 10, 2012
Dubus is often called a "writer's writer," which in general seems a dubious compliment. Are writers truly capable of identifying subtleties in a colleague's work that the average reader can't? When a writer is granted this appellation, I think it's more likely his work is viewed as stylish but slow-paced, elliptical, the equivalent of an art house film or avant-garde play. A select few--the cultured--will enjoy it; the rest of us stumble through wishing we were reading John Grisham. This is particularly true of Dubus's stories. Let me admit I'm biased by having read Dubus's son's memoir "Townie," in which Andre Dubus III paints an ambivalent portrait of his father. "Townie" is in some ways the polar opposite of Dubus's "Selected Stories." Where the stories are meandering and contemplative, "Townie" is tightly focused, compulsively readable. But maybe the larger issue here is the treatment of the subject matter. Both books address divorce, for instance, but come at it from different angles. Dubus's son, in "Townie," suffers the collateral damage of his parents' divorce. His evocation of this time, when he and his siblings were thrust into a hardscrabble life, is visceral and moving. But the senior Dubus, though returning to the themes of divorce and infidelity repeatedly, approaches them as though from a great distance. There is no immediacy, nothing at stake. His characters are almost exclusively working class--soldiers, waitresses, stable owners--yet their thoughts often emerge on the page as poetical abstract philosophical inquiries. I'm not saying working class people can't think deeply about things; it's that these reveries intrude on the narrative momentum of the stories. It's as though Dubus feared his story wasn't "literary" enough, so he thought he better incorporate a flowery interlude to wow the critics. But it's the old adage of "show don't tell." Dubus does too much telling, not enough showing, and it's what separates him from better writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, who explored the same alienated working class people in their stories. Dubus's stories drag on too long; he doesn't seem confident about where to begin or end. And he can't seem to escape his preoccupations: divorce and infidelity, as mentioned, but also Catholicism and Marine culture. The facts of Dubus's life, the failed relationships, he tries to transpose into art but without any of the attendant emotion. One almost gets the sense none of it caused him undue grief. The essays in "Broken Vessels," written after the accident that confined him to a wheelchair, seem more plainspoken, closer to the truth. The stories are okay, but I would recommend reading the essays instead, then read "Townie."
on November 15, 2011
He was a small boy from Louisiana who listened to the opera on the radio on Saturday afternoons. When he graduated from college, he joined the Marines. And he got strong and thick in the chest, and later, when he grew a beard, he looked like Ernest Hemingway.
Andre Dubus wrote a bit like Hemingway --- that is, he wrote about people saying bluntly what they meant, people who cheated and swore and, sometimes, killed --- but he didn't have Hemingway's fame. He couldn't. Hemingway wrote novels that became bestsellers and movies. Dubus wrote short stories.
"I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live," he wrote. "They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice."
I interviewed Andre Dubus in the early 1980s. He lived north of Boston, in one of those towns where no one you know has ever lived. He was married to a young writer, and this marriage, his third, seemed to be the keeper. There were children, and teaching, and the slow, steady pile of stories. He was a delightful conversationalist --- "Why do I go to Mass every day? Because if Ronald Reagan defines ultimate reality, I'd have to shoot myself!" - and fun to profile. The piece I wrote about him for a now-defunct arts magazine was good enough that his picture was on the cover. He hadn't experienced praise like that; he cried when he read it.
He got more attention in 1986. He was driving home late one night when he spotted a car on the side of the highway. He stopped to help two motorists. Another car swerved toward them. Dubus shoved the woman out of the way. In the crash, the man was killed instantly. Dubus had 34 broken bones --- and both legs crushed below the knee.
His choice, he was told, was a long rehab or one leg amputated above the knee. He had work to do, kids to support --- he took the surgery. He still needed three years of rehab. And his wife left him.
Friends rallied. Kurt Vonnegut, Ann Beattie, E.L. Doctorow, Gail Godwin, Stephen King, Tim O'Brien, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Yates and John Updike gave readings to help him out. He won a MacArthur Genius Award. But writing came harder, and it broadened --- he became a chronicler of disability.
And then, in 1999, he died. He was 62. He left behind six children, one of them the writer Andre Dubus III.
If you have never read Dubus, you may have seen a movie adapted from one of his stories. It's called "In the Bedroom" and it's about a father who has to go on living in the same town with the guy who killed his son. It's a classic Dubus conflict: wounded people, difficult situation, moral choices. Nothing "clever" or "literary" here, nothing that the New York crowd can easily relate to.
That story, called "Killings" is as good an introduction to Dubus as any. It's pure storytelling --- just character and plot. Or as a guy says in one of his stories, "It gets down to what's happening to you right now." Like: a woman, raped by her husband, and what happens when she gets a gun. Like: a cratering marriage, both husband and wife unfaithful, she with a priest. Like a man who falls in love with his son's wife.
I can make these stories sound even more downbeat by telling you that none of the characters in a Dubus story is much of a success. The teachers are assistant professors and instructors in small colleges. The women are waitresses and housewives. The houses are cramped, often with full ashtrays and sinks with dishes stacked high. And money --- the shortness of, that is --- is a silent villain throughout.
And yet these are glorious stories. First, for the writing, which is simple and unadorned and more like Chekhov than a lot of writing that's called Chekhovian. But even more, because their creator loves every character he created, loves them equally for their hopes and dreams and flaws. Not many writers could put restrained desire like this: "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."
A father, dropping his kids off at his ex-wife's house in winter, realizes that the condensation on the windows is the warm breath of his children. A wife, miserable beyond measure, gets that she doesn't truly hate her husband; if she did, she could leave. And there are so many more remarkably people to meet, people you see in convenience stores and in strip malls, people you're not likely to know.
Dubus loved them all because he was them all --- the macho guy who lifted weights was a warehouse of compassion and empathy. To read these stories is to admire the life's work of this too little known writer. And it's to feel fresh respect for the struggles we all face --- to become, if only briefly, a slightly better person.