Friday, September 28, 2007
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Touched by grace
Andre Dubus’s unending gifts
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN
September 24, 2007 1:53:48 PM
On the train back from New York City late last fall, I held a collection of Andre Dubus’s short stories, a recent gift from a beau. Walking out of a Cambridge bookstore not long before, he had said, “I got you something,” with that mix of pride and nerves that comes with passing along something that you love to someone else, and handed me a copy of Dubus’s Selected Stories. I knew the name — a local guy, Haverhill, it turned out, and the father of novelist Andre Dubus III. But I didn’t know the elder Dubus’s work. So on the train, I started a novella called Rose. And when the violence and emotional heat in that story reached their peak, I put the book on my lap and looked out the window at the passing coast — small bays and crowded harbors and the shadowed backs of old brick buildings, this, around November, when New England’s bones start to show — and I realized my heart was beating faster. The story had quickened my pulse.
As I read more Dubus, special-ordering his story collections from his longtime Boston publisher, David R. Godine, I started to feel for the author as I did for another artist, painter Andrew Wyeth. The two have much in common: realists who believe in ghosts, and who, in their art, grapple with mortality, intimacy, the minutiae of domestic life — dishes in the sink, geraniums on the window sill. Their work is somber but not joyless, sad but not maudlin, controlled but never dispassionate.
But it’s how they portray women that attracts me most. With his Helga portraits, Wyeth captures quiet, loneliness, defiance, confidence, connection. Dubus, even more so, has a way with women. He writes them in a manner that suggests a profound respect, especially for those characters who can only be described as housewives. He is never condescending, and always attuned to their specific complexities and pain. It was Anton Chekhov “who showed me that a woman’s soul has a struggle all its own, neither more nor less serious than a man’s, but different,” Dubus wrote in an essay, “Of Robin Hood and Womanhood,” in 1977. And his women do struggle (though that doesn’t sway me from wanting to be one of them).
“I became so sympathetic to the sounds of pain from the female soul that I went through androgynous periods,” Dubus wrote in ’77. That ability to exist in a character’s head — in their sex — shows. It shows in Edith, from the novellas Adultery and We Don’t Live Here Anymore (which together were the basis of a decent film with Peter Krause, Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, and Naomi Watts), who tends to her dying lover while her husband cheats with his best pal’s wife. It shows in the story “Miranda Over the Valley,” when the young title character discovers she’s pregnant. And it shows in Finding a Girl in America, when 19-year-old Lori tells her older lover that her friend, the man’s prior love, aborted what would’ve been his child.
Infidelity abounds in Dubus’s work. Doubt in the ability of men and women to sustain lives together suffuses his stories. The tenor of his writing resembles the crushing realism of Richard Yates, a teacher of Dubus’s at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. (The two often shared drinks at the Crossroads, a bar and restaurant at the corner of Mass Ave and Beacon Street.) But unlike Yates — who was equally admired as short story writer and novelist — Dubus stuck with shorter forms: “I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live,” he wrote in 1977. The disintegration of love gets frequent treatment, sometimes slow, sometimes abrupt and violent, always sad. Dubus himself was married three times. But despite all the women and his affinity for them (inside his stories and out), his writing is not feminine. There’s a muscle to it, a physicality, and a need, spoken or not, presents itself: to be a provider, to be a protector.
Because the violence that his characters perpetrate against each other is not just emotional. Dubus carried a gun with him for many years for “the protection I believed they gave people I loved, and strangers whose peril I might witness, and me,” he wrote in the essay “Giving Up the Gun.” He had good reasons to be armed. His older sister had been raped at knifepoint. And he did witness strangers in peril: he watched a young man smash a 15-year-old girl’s head against a wall because she had spilled soda on his car. He didn’t have the gun on him then, but pulled an axe handle from the trunk of his car, “one that I would use only to prevent or try and stop local violence,” and threatened the boy away from her. He pulled the gun once, in Alabama, at a white man approaching a black man with a knife, but did not need to shoot.
In his stories, though, the violence occurs between intimates. In “Killings,” a story of jealousy and revenge (made into the Oscar-nominated film In the Bedroom), a young man is murdered by his girlfriend’s ex-husband. In the novella The Pretty Girl, one of Dubus’s most powerful, exhausting works, a man rapes and terrorizes his ex-wife. The story’s power rests within Dubus’s ability to allow the reader not to like the main character — for what he does is odious — or even pity him, but to understand him. We can hate what he does, but we cannot hate him; he is flawed, cruel, but human. It is this ability, perhaps even more than his gift with women, that is Dubus’s genius, his truest gift.
In Voices from the Moon, a young boy tells his priest how his father is marrying his ex-daughter-in-law. The priest urges the boy toward compassion and forgiveness. Dubus was Catholic, a devout believer in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and his religion figures heavily in his stories. I did not grow up with God (my mother is a quiet but firm atheist; my father speaks of a Force or Energy more akin to Star Wars than anything to do with the Bible), but the beau who introduced me to Dubus did — and how. My first attempts at trying to understand his background were aided by these stories. Dubus articulates some of the mystery of faith, particularly the profundity of the Eucharist and the importance, within the church and without, of sacrament and ritual. So began a process of undoing the stereotypes and preconceptions I had about church and God and those who believe in the power of both.
In Rose, a man throws his son across a room, then sets the apartment on fire, his two daughters still inside. We are not meant to forgive him. We are not meant to feel compassionate. But we are meant to forgive what his wife, Rose, does in response. She tells her story to a man at a bar, years later. “What had she been sharing with me?” the narrator asks himself after her story’s done. “I believe it was the unexpected: chance, and its indiscriminate testings of our bodies, our wills, our spirits.”
And just so, chance did test Dubus. It was his instinct to aid, to protect, that drew him to pull over on I-93, heading north from Boston to Haverhill, on a July night in 1986, to help two people stuck on the side of the road. While he was helping them, a car swerved on the otherwise empty highway. Dubus pushed the woman out of the way. The man was struck and killed. And Dubus lost one of his legs above the knee, and most of the use of the other one, and was wheelchair-bound until his death in 1999.
The accident changed Dubus’s work. He published two books of essays and one more collection of short stories. The sorrow and anger are more explicit, and the pieces are filled “with the demons that always come on a bad wind; loneliness, mortality, legs.” But they are no less filled with moments of grace. Sacraments pervade these pieces. He writes of making sandwiches for his daughters, the sanctity of bread and meat and mustard, of bringing “our human, distracted love into focus with an act that doesn’t need words.”
A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday in early September that pushed over 90 degrees, my beau arrived, sweating from the 20-minute walk from Harvard Square. He tossed a book on my bed: Dubus’s final collection of essays, Meditations from a Movable Chair. With that volume, I now had all of Dubus's works. Before I could say thank you, he pulled off his shirt and headed toward the shower. I don’t know God, but this gesture, this gift, felt like one of Dubus’s wordless moments of grace.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Saturday, September 15, 2:00 pm & 3:30 pm – At 2 pm Joe McKendry, author of Beneath the Streets of Boston, will appear for a talk & signing at the Boston Globe Children's Book Festival in Copley Square, downtown Boston. At 3:30 pm Ilse Plume, author & illustrator of several Godine titles, will appear at the festival to talk about her book The Farmer in the Dell.
Thursday, September 20, 7:00 pm – Talented brothers Brad & Mark Leithauser will be giving a talk on their collaborations over the years and signing copies of their new collection of illustrated light verse, Toad to a Nightingale, at the Mt. Hoyoke Art Museum. Mark's original illustrations will be on display at the museum for the event.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
The Land of the Green Ginger
By Noel Langley
Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
Godine, 149 pages, $10.95
reviewed by Meghan Cox Gurdon
September 1, 2007
When Aladdin sat on the throne of Imperial China - and yes, gentle reader, he did - it came to pass that a genie informed his handsome son, Abu Ali, of his destiny. Abu Ali's task, the genie explained, was to find the Land of Green Ginger, a magical garden that behaved rather like a flying carpet by floating over the world and only rarely coming to rest. Abu Ali would furthermore have to lift a spell from the wizard who had created this wonderful place. Only then might Abu Ali seek the hand of the loveliest girl in all Asia, Silver Bud of Samarkand. From the start of Noel Langley's amusing tale, first published in 1937, there is no doubt that Abu Ali will succeed, for he is clever, amiable and so precocious that he engages in saucy banter with his astonished father within hours of being born. What makes this familiar hero-undergoing-ordeals-to-win-pretty-girl plot unusually fun are the absurd supporting characters - two wicked rival suitors are named Tintac Ping Foo and Rubdub Ben Thud - and the skilled, playful writing. (The South Africa-born Langley was a playwright and screenwriter whose credits include the script for "The Wizard of Oz.") Here he describes the itinerant garden: "It was sprinkled with ginger trees laden down with branch upon branch of sparkling sugar-coated green ginger; and big bright beauteous flowers grew out of the soft velvety grass, and water-lilies floated on a cheerful little hubblebubbling stream. It was all charmingly rural. No bits of paper, no empty bottles, no initials carved on the tree trunks. You cannot imagine such natural wonders, gentle reader; you must simply take my word for it." The sometimes excessive whimsy of "The Land of Green Ginger" means that it won't suit a world-weary child, but readers ages 6-10 who still love fairy tales are likely to find it very entertaining.
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
Published: September 2, 2007
It might seem a strange thing to say about a writer who has spent so much of his working life producing children’s books — more than 60, at last count — but simplicity doesn’t come naturally to Russell Hoban. In his adult novels, of which the 1980 “Riddley Walker” is the best known, Hoban’s default setting is head-splitting complexity: the plotting tends to be fiendishly elaborate, the language dense and punny, the relationship between fiction and reality intricately vexed.
On the face of it, the ingenious “Linger Awhile,” his latest book for grown-ups, is fairly typical of the odd concoctions Hoban likes to cook up in his laboratory: a brief, fanciful narrative about reanimating a dead B-movie Western starlet from the “visual DNA” of a black-and-white videotape, by means of a chemical process the novel’s very mad scientist refers to as a “suspension of disbelief.” This sounds like the sort of thing the French call a jeu d’esprit, and the English call too clever by half — a charge that would certainly stick to a good deal of Hoban’s fiction. Not this one, though. “Linger Awhile” is a friendly, shaggy little thing, eager to please and only a tad smarter than it has to be. It’s too clever by 10, 15 percent, tops.
Hoban is 82, and this is distinctly an old man’s book: cranky, wistful, riddled with mortality. What sets in motion all the monkey business about reanimation is the erotic obsession of an 83-year-old London widower named Irving Goodman with one Justine Trimble, the female lead in an undistinguished ’50s oater called “Last Stage to El Paso.” Irving, in the throes of an “end of life” crisis, brings his well-worn videocassette to Istvan Fallok, proprietor and presiding genius of a somewhat dubious Soho tech outfit known as Hermes Soundways. Fallok, a sexagenarian, falls hard for the svelte cowgirl too, and after restoring her to the land of the (barely) living decides to keep her for himself.
Once Justine has been resurrected — it happens gratifyingly quickly — the novel settles into a relaxed, old-pro routine of genre parody, light irony and gentle philosophizing: nothing too taxing for an aging fabulist and his aging characters. The story starts out as “Frankenstein,” then turns unexpectedly into something more like “Dracula,” thanks to Hoban’s best joke: for Justine to live in full color, rather than in the unnerving black-and-white in which she has emerged from Fallok’s “primordial soup,” she needs blood and plenty of it. And lots of sex, which delights her admirers (until it exhausts them). Jealousy poisons the atmosphere, and things get uncomfortable when Justine’s nocturnal blood-hunts attract the attention of the police, but for the most part the eccentric senior citizens of “Linger Awhile” seem energized by their sci-fi experiment in nostalgia, happy to trade in their tattered-coat-upon-a-stickness for a lustier, more colorful, wider-screened sort of existence. Whatever is clapping its hands and singing here, it’s probably not the soul.
The creature’s charms aren’t lost on the middle-aged either: she has a third passionate fan in Chauncey Lim, a 40-ish purveyor of “optical novelties.” Age notwithstanding, none of these men seem interested in sailing to Byzantium anyway: Justine’s got them all on the last stage to someplace wilder and scarier, where Yeats’s “monuments of unaging intellect” are thoroughly beside the point. This is, in a peculiar way, a fortunate development in Hoban’s fiction, which has in the past sometimes lusted too strenuously for intellectual significance of the monumental, unaging sort. “Linger Awhile” is, for example, enormously more readable — and more affecting — than the novel in which, 20 years ago, Hoban introduced Istvan Fallok, the gnomic, grimly frolicsome “Medusa Frequency.” That book labors mightily to retell the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the strain shows: the wit is arch, donnish, and the deep thoughts about art and life are pretty consistently gaseous. (The fact that most of these fetid pensées spring from a disembodied head of Orpheus, conjured by Fallok and often taking the form of a cabbage or a soccer ball, doesn’t even begin to excuse them.) The pop-culture mythology of “Linger Awhile” has the welcome effect of tamping down Hoban’s instinct for profundity. But it gives him room to show off his true gift for dark farce, with just a spritz of music-hall metaphysics. The pleasantly cheesy Borges-on-Viagra tone suits Hoban’s peculiar talent well.
Artists, like the rest of us, think of old age as an inconvenience, an infirmity, a curse. With novelists, the books tend to get shorter, terser, bolder (or should it be balder?); the writer’s energy isn’t what it used to be, so he cuts to the chase. That last stage runs a fast, direct route through some perilous territory. But age clearly has its benefits for a writer like Hoban, who, in times of greater stamina, displayed a penchant for wandering off course and leaving himself (and his readers) stranded in a lush, obscure semantic wilderness. In one of this book’s most apparently inexplicable turns, Irving Goodman, after losing interest in Justine, begins to have dreams about William Bligh, the infamous captain of the Bounty. The old man finds himself admiring the determination — “plus his practical knowledge and his seamanship” — that enabled Bligh to guide his men to land in a small boat through treacherous waters.
Goodman’s ardor for Bligh seems unaccountable, but in the context of this funny, lucid novel and in the larger context of this writer’s complicated career, it makes a lovely kind of sense. Russell Hoban never longed for simplicity, but now that old age has thrust it upon him he has discovered that he kind of likes it. Or to put it another way, he has finally — in the nick of time — learned to appreciate the value of navigation, of knowing how to arrive safely at the place you set out for: El Paso, Pitcairn Island, Byzantium, wherever.
Terrence Rafferty is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.