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The Art of Reading Andre Dubus: We Don’t Have to Live Great Lives

Andre Dubus was enamored with the human condition. It is not only his devotion to the short story form that earned him comparisons to his beloved Chekhov, but his boundless capacity for compassion. His stories search deeper into the human soul than many writers dare reach. There are moments when his generosity and tenderness can nearly overwhelm the reader, and it is a testament to his narrative skill that the stories never collapse into sentimentality. Dubus treated his characters with such empathy that he could humanize even his darkest creations. His portrayal of Richard Strout, the antagonist of "Killings" (and of the movie In the Bedroom), is a good example.

After Strout shoots Frank Fowler for sleeping with his ex-wife, Frank's father, Matt, kidnaps Strout with the intention of killing him to avenge his son's murder. During the kidnapping, Dubus describes, in agonizing detail, the minutiae of Strout's tidy apartment: the greaseless stovetop, the lack of dishes in the sink, and, in the bedroom, "the socks rolled, the underwear folded and stacked." By focusing on these surprisingly common details in the midst of such an uncommon moment, the reader is allowed to see Strout as something far deeper and more complex than a stand-in for evil. Strout begins to look a lot like Matt Fowler: an average man who is capable of horrific acts. It is a chilling revelation.

"How rare it is these days to encounter characters with wills, with a sense of choice," John Updike wrote, in the mid-1980s, of Dubus's work. Dubus trusted his characters so much that he gave his stories over to them. "My job is only to form the words on the page as the characters are performing their acts," Dubus told the Yale Review. In fact, he claimed that he was so helplessly enslaved to the will of his characters that he rewrote the ending to "Miranda Over the Valley," an excruciating story about abortion, three times in the hope that Miranda would act differently—but she would not. "I didn't want Miranda to be so hard," Dubus said, "but that was all she would do."

Miranda is one of many examples of Dubus's uncanny ability to create female characters that seem as though they were written by a woman. Friend, admirer, and fellow short story devotee Tobias Wolff wrote in his afterword to Andre Dubus: Tributes (Xavier Review Press, 2001) that Dubus "wrote better about women than any man of his generation, both from their point of view and from without. Each of his women is particular and unexpected, her moral and physical nature without a shadow of male fantasy or condescension."

In "Out of the Snow," for example, a wife speaks up when her well-meaning husband attempts to console her with a trite and simplistic notion of motherhood. In the story, two men follow LuAnn Arceneaux home from the grocery store and force their way into her kitchen. Dubus describes in visceral language how LuAnn savagely defends herself against what is surely an attempted rape. Later, LuAnn tells her husband how she is stunned by the violence she was capable of. Her husband explains it away as motherly instinct. "You had to," he says. "For yourself. For the children. For me." But Dubus does not allow LuAnn to be consoled by such a clichéd rationale—she interrupts her husband and tells him, "I didn't hit those men so I could be alive for the children, or for you. I hit them so my blood would stay in my body; so I could keep breathing."

The fiction writer Ann Beattie has long admired Dubus and says his stories go far beyond simply giving female characters equal attention and power. "Dubus lets us watch fairly conventional power struggles between men and women work out unexpectedly," Beattie says, "because there is always the inclusion of fate...everyone is swept up in something larger than any individual." She believes Dubus gives men and women comparable authority and agency 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," Beattie says, "even with male and female characters who are articulate and who think they know what it is they want."

Time and again, Dubus explored how normal people struggled with the complexities of their desires. This subject lies at the heart of Voices From the Moon (Godine, 1984), his longest novella (it was actually marketed as a novel) and very likely his masterpiece.

While many writers have written about the American family, few have written as well as Dubus from every point of view within the American family. He has inhabited his stories not only in the voices of sons and fathers ("If They Knew Yvonne" and "A Father's Story"), but in those of mothers and daughters, too ("Leslie in California" and "In My Life"). In Voices From the Moon, Dubus, like William Faulkner in As I Lay Dying, uses all of these voices, examining the story's central conflict from multiple perspectives.

Reader Comments

  • Steve Zelt says...

    I'm sorry to have read this so long after it was published. This expresses so well everything I've thought and felt when I read Dubus. Well done.

  • Steve Zelt says...

    I'm sorry to have read this so long after it was published. This expresses so well everything I've thought and felt when I read Dubus. Well done.

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The Art of Reading Andre Dubus: We Don’t Have to Live Great Lives (July/August 2008)
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