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.