Dispatches | October 27, 2010

I discovered Andre Dubus as an undergraduate at Ohio State.  We had a mass market paperback of 50 “masterpieces” selected by Tom Jenks and included in this anthology was “The Fat Girl.”  I actually don’t remember reading the story in class, or any of the stories from the anthology; it was one of those classes where the teacher makes you order five books and then you use none of them.  Early in the semester, we had this in-class writing assignment: take the first sentence from one of the anthology selections and use it as the first sentence of our own story.  After we wrote for about ten minutes or so, we were asked why we made the choice we did.  I went with Dubus, and the first sentence was this:

Her name was Louise.

I know: not very exciting, is it?  I’m sure that I had a contrarian thought there—no one else will pick this one, I’ll show them!—and that somehow this would make a fine story.  I don’t remember what I wrote, or what my explanation was, but I’m sure that whatever it was is still buried somewhere in a stack of notebooks along with assorted other things that I can’t throw away, one of those boxes of Stuff that goes with you every time you move and inexplicably doesn’t get opened, sorted, and pitched.

The stories of Andre Dubus have stayed with me ever since, traveled with me to my post-college years in Boston and its surrounding areas, where many of Dubus’s stories were set; followed me to St. Louis when I went to graduate school, and discovered that much of what we were told not to do in our own stories during writing workshops was precisely what Dubus did in his own work; and here in Columbia, where I think about stories and writing all day, whether my own or for the work in the magazine.  Dubus is one of my guides; he is also one of my foils.  He’s a writer that I once tried to emulate; now I recognize he and I are different writers in ways too numerous to list here.  Now, he feels like an old friend, the kind of person you’re always delighted to see enter a room and even if you haven’t seen him in two or three years, your conversation is still effortless and delightful.  More often than not, when I’m not sure what new book I want to tackle and I’m ill at ease at home and the dreck on television just won’t do it, I go back to my shelves and take down a Dubus collection.

On those nights, I often turn to one of Dubus’s novellas.  He has several excellent ones: “Adultery” and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” are probably the best known ones, but I’ve always been fond of “The Pretty Girl” and its slightly thriller-esque style.  All these novellas take a few hours to read, perfect for one good night of reading.  The characters in these stories are all richly observed; there is no rush in his stories, no hurry to get the narrative going until you know your characters the way you know your own face in the mirror each morning.  Dubus dives down into his people, layer upon layer of a person, all of his or her eccentricities and secrets revealed with humanity and grace.  These are stories about grieving parents, adolescent boys, young wives, the whole gamut of our lives, and yet, there is something distinct about his treatment that lets me know, instantly, that I’m reading an Andre Dubus story.

And the distinction is this: compassion.

You would think there would be an abundance of this generosity of spirit in fiction, but there really isn’t.  Too often we read stories that fall into narratives of the uncompassionate.  These stories have a sense of puppetry.  The reader feels that the author has a Point, and that the characters are simply devices to make that Point.  It’s hard to give a contextual example, but perhaps you know what I mean: stories where the sense of manipulation is hard to point to but strongly felt; the characters, like Pinocchio, tell you that they have no strings, and this somehow makes those strings all the more visible.  This particularly stings with stories that are ironic, and irony seems to be a default for so much of our culture nowadays.  Sincerity isn’t just discouraged; it is distrusted to the point of almost being nonexistent.  Sometimes, to avoid irony, stories become far too sentimental.  These stories that are so earnest that they sink into melodrama, and remove the sense of what is real and true about the lives of their characters has to be overblown and enhanced, like a 3D movie of a soap opera.  Dubus manages to achieve compassion and sincerity in all of his stories in a way that is both terrifying and amazing.  I love this description towards the end of his story “Miranda Over The Valley”:

She spoke to him and kissed and dried his tears, though she felt nothing for them; she gave him her lips as she might have given coins to a beggar. She could feel nothing except that it was strange for him to cry

In the collection of essays, Broken Vessels, one of Dubus’ essays—I’m blanking on the name, and I’m writing from Lakota Coffee in downtown Columbia, the grinder working the beans and humming pleasantly, and can’t turn and pluck the book off the shelf—discusses watching snow fall with his family when he had four young children.  He wrote about how he felt in awe of the snow as a child, much as his children probably did at that moment.  But now, as an adult and a father, he knows that under different circumstances, like as a homeless person, the snow that he finds beautiful can also be a horrible thing, something that can freeze and kill another person in the wrong circumstances.  How so much of what we view and love and cherish can, to someone else, be life threatening.  His Catholicism effects and deepens all of his work—this might be why some people don’t know his stories—but it isn’t a Catholicism of conformity, but a belief that has been shaped and broken and rebuilt and wrangled through decades of family and work, a Catholicism that for Dubus alone is both personal and necessary.  Yet, reading his stories, I never feel that Dubus’s narrative or characters require me to feel anything, or that the emotions in his stories are preordained.  We are moved and engaged by what we feel but what that feeling is remains entirely up to the reader.

What a tremendous challenge and achievement this is.

In an interview with Powell’s, the writer David Means discussed the ending of short stories, and pointed out how the ending of one of Dubus’s great stories concludes.  It’s the story of Luke Ripley, a divorced father who lives a quiet life with his horses, opera music, and reading detective fiction:

All really good short stories are open-ended.  The bad short stories are the ones that resolve and wind up in a nice neat conclusion.  You don’t have room in a short story to close things down.  You just have room to give a narrative push and let the reader move forward with whatever happens.  I’m thinking of a story I read by Andre Dubus: ‘A Father’s Story.’  He sets up this really incredible scenario where the father protects the daughter who has hit somebody with her car.  He hides it. That’s the end of the story: he hid it. He did what he had to do.

Well, no: that’s not quite the end of the story.  At the end of the story, Luke is talking to God. Not in a “Footsteps” kind of way either—believe me, I wouldn’t recommend this story if it did—but in a way that is plausible and true and heart-wrenching.  It is an unbelievable ending, if you just tell a friend about it.  No one should get away with an ending like that. But Dubus not only gets away with it, but achieves something incredible, rendering one of the finest last scene that I’ve ever read in short fiction.

Naturally the best of his work will be found in Selected Stories, but in all his work, there is not only the compassion but a style that I love: long sentences often bound together with semi-colons, introspective narration, dialogue that feels almost like a play as you read between the lines to get the pauses and movements, prose rich in significant and moving details, and his descriptions of New England and the way setting deepens character and creates mood.  His style influenced me on many of my early stories, and I now admire Dubus’s work rather than try to emulate it.  I think that was a good thing: a period of thinly veiled mimicry all writers go through, sometimes for years, before discovering our own unique way of experiencing the world.

Asking me to pick my favorite writer is like giving a starving man a menu. Dubus died several years ago, so I’ll never have the opportunity to shake his hand and tell him how much his work has meant to me, just like I’ll never be able to say a proper thanks to Scott Fitzgerald or Grace Paley.  I didn’t know Andre Dubus, and pretending I do because I’ve read his work is ridiculous. Still. He wrote the kind of stories that all writers, regardless of your style or taste, should read and experience and appreciate, stories that feel intimate and true and make you feel you know the writer, you know the characters, and know them perhaps better than they know themselves. Dubus is one of our best writers, and the complexity and intimacy in his work can be experienced anew each time I reread him. If you have read Dubus before, I urge you to make time for his work again; if you haven’t, seek out his stories and read them for the first time. I promise, on a cold autumn night, there isn’t anything better to read.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.