Photo by Marion Ettlinger.
Andre Dubus and I were once on book tour together. Because he was wheelchair-bound by this time, we were transported by hired car. Outside Boston, actually not so close to Boston, the car broke down. Do I remember correctly that this happened on a holiday weekend, or am I still trying to make sense of it? We sat in the back seat. Andre’s friend Jack was in the seat next to the driver. There were numerous phone calls, many moments when we had, or lost, hope. We reached our publisher’s voicemail. Nobody responded—well, there was talk, but no one did anything, as time passed and time passed. Finally, we tried to get a car by calling 1-800-RENTACAR, but that didn’t work either. A cop car pulled into the breakdown lane, assessed the situation, and raced off, lights blinking. That was the end of that. Hours into this, my husband and his best friend fetched me. They insisted: I must go because they were all going to get down the hill somehow and pee. I’d be seeing him soon, he said. One of the group had finally managed to summon help: a tow truck, another rental car, I don’t remember. I left amid cries of “Good sport!” and “See you next week!” feeling that I should stay. (Yes, I should have.)
During this debacle, I doubt I had reason to reflect on the fact that Andre and I were writers. What would that matter? If you’re busted flat in Baton Rouge, who cares that it’s a double entendre? Off I went. My pal and I would rendezvous soon in Portland, Maine.
As it turned out, Andre didn’t make it to Portland. In a coffee shop there, I overheard a young guy trying to convince a pretty woman he’d just met to go to the library reading. “He’s a kind of a Raymond Carver character,” he said. “And I’ve never heard of her.” Off “her” went, to do a solo.
When I think of Andre, a visual image of us in the back seat inevitably returns: the world whizzing by, everyone’s bright ideas totally ineffective, the distracting and effective bleak humor that soon set in, how strange it was that a car belonging to a big company had broken down and there was no one to help us. The oddity of the situation became the prevailing reality. This isn’t my segue into comparing life to fiction, then launching into a discussion of one of the best American short-story writers ever. It’s just noting something in words, imagining that if there’s an afterlife, Andre will be happy that I spread perplexity to readers who know (pax “The New Criticism,” now an approach so old) not to confuse the author’s life with his work. We do our best, and in Andre’s case, he watched keenly when he was mobile, and no less keenly when he was afflicted. He took things in straight on, and also saw from an aerial perspective. Writers or not, we’re mortal, trapped in a car or trapped somewhere more spacious.
It’s sort of thrilling—and maybe a bit dangerous—to have a fictional character stand alone, though this isn’t an unfamiliar state to any of us; numerous works of literature focus closely, unwaveringly, on one character. We’ve all been alone, during exhilarating walks down woodland paths, meditating, or when everyone else has fallen asleep. We have sometimes been alone when waiting for a bus. But unless we’ve walked off to have a private moment, we also tend to notice that we’re the only one on the street (or, in Andre Dubus’s world, the last woman cleaning up the kitchen), so where is everyone else who means to board the bus? What I’m trying to get at is the surprising way Dubus does the equivalent of spotlighting a character, though his subtlety makes what he does more analogous to being in church and lighting a candle.
Once we’ve seen Dubus’s characters alone or close up, that impression lingers. But do the characters glow, so to speak, because of inner light or external lighting? Only when we get some distance from them, and their often indelible first moments—only as the story progresses—do we get some indication. Writers usually want to find ways to animate their characters from within and externally, allowing us to know their private thoughts or revealing them through their interaction with others. Dubus was Catholic. It was an integral part of his identity; he often addressed the subject directly. So perhaps those private moments are analogous to the split second before a character on stage speaks, or perhaps, more aptly, analogous to a petitioner approaching a religious icon? What if we’re observing a silent prayer that establishes an unspoken interaction with an unnamed force? If so, at least sometimes, might that force not be called spiritual?
Dubus’s story “Over the Hill” begins: “Her hand was tiny. He held it gently, protectively, resting in her lap, the brocaded silk of her kimono against the back of his hand, the smooth flesh gentle and tender against his palm.” We sense the prose’s movement—it, too, can be characterized as gentle—that guides us, as the still hand seduces us into this story. After reading the opening sentences, I remained fixated on the visuals. This might be called a devotional moment. We imagine the story will either go one way or the other, but nothing in between: it will evolve mesmerically, through our senses (feel that brocade sleeve), or reverse the reader’s expectations with violence.
But neither happens. Or both, as it turns out.
While the prose comes close to freezing time and forcing the scene to vibrate through our senses, the dialogue, once spoken, is of another sort—it’s not beautiful, but clipped, Hemingway-esque, flat-footed, sentences that don’t even aspire to be cryptic. Things change quickly, in the bar where sailors sit with Japanese women who come with a price. The main character is an unhappy man named Gale (the name carries connotations of a storm). When the woman’s hand is relinquished, Gale goes to the bathroom, where there are drawings of ships, some with scrawled “obscenities,” along with factual information. The image of the hand returns, conflated with hands of a different sort. Out goes the tactile, thrilling silky kimono; in comes the toilet. Along with this information: There is a “she,” Gale’s young wife, who—like the American girl at the end of the war in Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain”—is petulant, and wants the Japanese equivalent of the good life. Here, it has been transmuted from Hemingway to Dubus, to become “china and glassware and silk and wool and cashmere sweaters and a transistor radio.” Those desires end with a thud—as does the litany in Hemingway’s story, unless we particularly like wet kittens.
Without giving a summary of this quintessentially sad story, the violence that is the flip-side of the gentle, tranquil moment with which the story begins (we accept that love and hate are not necessarily polarities) becomes, surprisingly, something Gale directs toward himself, in a moment reminiscent of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp.” At the end of each story comes a moment of awareness—every new conclusion is not an epiphany—in which the reader learns the character’s thoughts about mortality. Granted, one is a child and one has just left any vestiges of childhood behind. We read both writers’ stories, though, in context with what we know about the ways of the world. We also take in Dubus’s story with a keen awareness of how Hemingway changed the story form by making sure information subtly accrued that was at odds with things stated and observed. Post-Hemingway, a reader’s attention functions like a dowsing rod, searching for subtext that reveals what’s precious in proportion to how deeply it’s buried.
The uneasy tension between stasis and a person’s resolve to act, whether or not such action ultimately comes to pass in a Dubus story, carries an implied question of what one should or might do, versus the accommodations inherent in what one does. Dubus’s stories question the status-quo. Actually, they catch it and break its neck, even those times they ostensibly put it back together. Everything looks the same, but if you were to lift it, you’d feel the inherent flaw.
This might be the moment to remark on Dubus’s writerly largesse. It’s easy for writers to corner their characters—one way is by stacking the deck against them—yet sometimes (like being mugged in an alley) the story seems to have its own uncontainable energy and trajectory; it declares the inevitability of letting bad things happen.
Peter, the main character in “Going Under,” has lost his wife. His children have moved away with her. He has relationships with younger women–some too young to finish their martinis. Ever. Here’s a typical moment in which Peter, who seems neither terribly imperiled nor highly functional, has a perception that in a lesser writer’s story would seem forced, probably compounded by the problem that the prose would be written in loftier language than his/her character’s perceptions: “Jo was good to be with, better than eating alone; but she has not laughed since dinner, her smile is forced, and in her voice and dark eyes her ache is bitter, it is defiant; and he feels they are not at a hearth but are huddled at a campfire in a dangerous forest.” What at quick glance might seem condescending—or at least Peter’s tendency to only like young women depending on how they affect him—isn’t, on closer examination, so easy to categorize. We can’t just dismiss this jerk. The word “bitter”—even if it’s invoked as he would perceive it, retaining the emphasis on him—is a word from a different realm: the realm of adult experience. Furthermore, she is “defiant.” She has volition. The language changes: Peter no longer interprets as if his perceptions are interchangeable with facts; “he feels,” and what he feels suggests (as the story established earlier) a tentativeness on his part, a shift in potential power. When we hear about the hearth—a word almost onomatopoetic; to say it aloud suggests breadth and warmth, even heat—we take cold comfort. This hearth carries connotations of a fairy tale. Peter would like to feel powerful; perhaps he’d like to express his condescension toward the rather random young woman, but the potential of something frightening happening enters with the allusion to a fairy tale. “Hearth” is like so many words spoken to children about a largely vanished past: gone, and therefore intended to have magical associations. The characters are “huddled” (a religious posture that is of course also symbolic). He and she are metaphorically in “a dangerous forest”—an apt analogy for life, itself. Who or what is de-stabilized here? First, the status quo. The language also produces a visceral effect; the reader would prefer the warm hearth to the unknown forest. There’s no going back, though: we’ve been transported, propelled into new territory. Dubus’s stories are so often deceptively familiar until the moment they’re revealed to be a consideration of something else.
Initially, reading “Going Under,” I was perplexed by Peter’s histrionics: raving, in dialogue. Yet early in the story we learn (casually, in passing) that he started out as an actor. This cued me to another way of reading: his first failure was in acting (later appearing on radio). When the reader meets him, he’s engaged in repetition compulsion, locked into performing—and performing badly. (No, I’m not kidding.) Here, “an Andre Dubus story” (yes, they’re recognizable, but not to their detriment) deliberately teeters on farce. Wow. What a risky, admirably perverse thing for a writer to do: to give his character bad lines, and lots of them; to present moments interchangeable with your worst Broadway nightmare of having to sit still and be subjected to bombastic over-acting (“Come with me, Miranda. You love me. We’ll make it. Come now, baby, come now….”). Other than the reader, the audience for this is Peter’s passive, not-quite-girlfriend, Miranda, who’s also involved with another man and won’t make a commitment. (“I’m too young,” she says sensibly, undercutting all his over-the-top, ostensible passion with three simple words.) She remains a nearly mute audience as he ups the ante, imploring her to see things his way. Gosh—ever met anyone like that?
This story also recreates, subtly cueing us through action as well as words, a potentially dangerous downside of storytelling: writers who try to hammer others (listeners; interpreters) into submission. When you get used to a writer’s territory, you have certain expectations, even if they’re unstated, to see those expectations reversed; this can happen even when readers are made very happy. As Flannery O’Connor pointed out about one of her stories, “Anyone is happy to see someone’s wooden leg stolen.”
Finally, I read “Going Under” as a serious story, though it runs the risk of being misread, in part because we identify neither with the silent, stricken Miranda, nor the bombastic, self-dramatizing Peter. Peter is desperate. “Desperate. Yes.” What more information can Dubus be expected to provide? Well, this: that when Peter can’t sleep, he sets out for his other girlfriend’s house in the middle of the night, whistling “Summertime,” George Gershwin’s song from Porgy and Bess. Anyone familiar with the opera’s lyrics knows they’re sung by a man who wants to persuade the woman he loves to see things his way. (In retrospect, Peter’s importuning “Come on” dialogue sounds similar to “You an’ me can live dat high life in New York/ Come wid me . . . ” from the same show). Dubus is appropriating, displacing, re-creating, making comedy butt up against a serious matter: this man has no sense of self. In his conflict and stasis—in his inability to move that is so often the metaphorical straightjacket restraining free movement—Peter seems doomed to a Dante-esque ring of his own hell: “If he reaches the sidewalk, he will go around the corner of the building, to the garage in back. To reach this sidewalk he must simply traverse the lawn, walking on a shoveled walk between low white banks of snow. But he cannot go down the walk. He stands on the porch looking at the two steps and then at the T formed by the two sidewalks and at the smooth hard snow of the lawn. He starts to step onto the first step, his leg moves, it reaches the step, the other leg follows, he is standing on the step but Peter himself is not really there, whoever Peter is has been driven in panic back into the warm and lighted apartment; he is not even on the steps.” This has, indeed, been a story about a person unsure of his identity, unmoored. Many writers would have concluded here, when the themes have been brought together to produce a paradoxically bleak exhilaration. Dubus does not end here. Read on. The soundtrack is provided, and the writing’s as sure-footed as your own fears, stalking you.
Dubus’s female characters are very well conceived, and it may be more unusual than I realize that he so consistently created and stayed so close to his female characters. But I don’t want to simply assert that Dubus gives women equal time and equal potential power as men, but rather that he lets us watch fairly conventional power struggles between men and women work out unexpectedly, because there is always the inclusion of fate. Dubus’s second collection, Adultery & Other Choices includes two examples of this:
“The Fat Girl” is almost a fairy tale, but one gone very wrong; “Andromache” is almost a prototypical tale of how military life for the men serving and their wives, but the military, ultimately, offers no clearer ability for one to triumph than engaging in something overtly reckless.
Reading “The Fat Girl,” one of my favorite stories, feels as if we’re spying and seeing the private moments that ruin what might go right in the life of the title character, Louise, and her relationships with her parents, college roommate, and husband. Very quickly, the reader pretty much has to take sides. And since Louise’s nice roommate, Carrie, is willing to help her, it would be inhumane not to take that side—so readers think, “Yes, yes, I should be affiliated with the roommate, with the voice of reason.” But that dynamic (covertly) is a love affair played out not sexually, but through one person being vigilant about what is best for another. It is as much about power as Louise’s earlier struggle with her mother. But there’s real affection between the roommates, and, arguably, it trumps the relationship Louise has later with her husband.
In Louise’s marriage, we observe that she can get only so far with her attempts at weight loss, and then she begins to regress: “He truly believed they were arguing about her weight. She knew better: She knew that beneath the argument lay the question of who Richard was.” This might seem astute—she wants it to appear that way—but I don’t think we can take this as an epiphany. It makes her sound good, but is it verifiable? In the end, we see that Louise grows into a woman who wants to be alone, that she is more than willing to have her husband simply gone.
In “Andromache,” Dubus focuses not on Marine officer Joe Forrest, who has died unexpectedly, but on his widow, Ellen. Dubus gives us the story’s end—the outcome—at the very beginning, so there’s no surprise (surprise as in unexpected revelation) when what happens happens. This is a good writerly advantage: to be able to let the reader know more than the characters, because the writer can take liberties with chronology, while the plot transpires as it does. It is a sneaky story: we know from the outset that Joe has died, then move backwards into another time period when we uncomfortably observe him “living.” Ellen is left with the burden, but so is the reader, who has also always known.
I can see thinking of Ellen as accepting of the difficulties of being newly widowed and suddenly finding herself a civilian with two young children to fend for (she does identify them as difficulties; she’s not obtuse or in denial), yet she seems to have no fail-safe if the status quo isn’t maintained. But the story becomes more of a comment on military life that asks all characters to be withholding, than a story about a particular marriage. Joe and Ellen are being dictated to by the military—Joe has his role to play and Ellen has her role to play, also. But there are cracks long before Joe’s death: Ellen feels condescended to; she feels slighted by the circumstances of the party; she has her confidantes, but they’re too immersed in the same dynamic to really help. The story is more about “This Kind of Life” than about individuals.
Dubus goes out of his way to show us the cracks in the facades, and to show us that while two strong-willed people are behaving appropriately, that is no guarantee about what curve life might throw them. So I see Ellen and Joe as equal, in a way, but also as limited by context, and a bit numbed by time. They’re evenly matched, but Ellen is right: the survivors are the ones who are going to have to find a way to go on living.
I think Dubus gave his men and women comparable power because it’s not about who “wins,” but rather it is a reality that the struggle is undertaken again and again. The stories are about how people must make accommodations once they find out there’s no winning. The external world, as Dubus sees it, is very grim—even with male and female characters who are articulate and who think they know what it is they want.
Dubus is such a master that even those times he invokes sturm und drang, he simultaneously casts the drama into invisible ironic quotation marks. Even when Dubus says something with his fingers crossed behind his back, his jokes are terribly serious, the stakes high, the final moments often transcendent not merely because of his prose, but because rather than expressing hopelessness, the stories lift out of moments of personal pain, sometimes to reveal imaginary, rather than real constrictions. What he observes, he clearly does not endorse. His fictional world—though the reader comes to feel that if he wanted to, Andre Dubus, like Puck, could race around the earth—rooted his fiction in working class life; really, the struggle to have a life, since poverty interrupts good intentions, liquor is cheap, women were not then (are they now?) given a fair shake, and people are fallible. In these stories, the divorce rate is high, the rate of loneliness higher. No writer has the obligation to save us from grimness (bring on Zola), but his endeavor —apparent from his first story collection—reveals a complex writer who has digested enough unhappiness that he could easily regurgitate, and of that mess—because of his wizard’s ability with words—make something beautiful. There are certainly moments, lyrical moments, moments that genuinely transport the reader by simile or metaphor, but it is his ability to undercut his own talent in order to keep us in the real world that dazzles me. An example: Consider the last sentence from my favorite story in Adultery & Other Choices, “The Fat Girl.”
What is Dubus doing, anyway, calling one story “The Fat Girl,” and another story from the same book, which alludes to a very different mythical woman, “Andromache”? He’s looking straight ahead and from an aerial perspective, and not flinching at what’s there. He’s spiritually (ok, at least celestially) inclined, while knowing that his sharp eye and ear are not enough to take him where he wants to go, where he wants us to join him.
Ann Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award Collections, in John Updike’s The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and in Jennifer Egan’s The Best American Short Stories 2014. In 2000, she received the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in the short story. In 2005, she received the Rea Award for the Short Story. She was the Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. She is a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She and her husband, Lincoln Perry, live in Maine and Key West, Florida.
This essay by Ann Beattie is taken from the introduction to the new edition of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Collected Short Stories and Novellas by Andre Dubus, published by David R. Godine, Publisher this June. © 2018 by Ann Beattie.
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