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

Joshua Bodwell

The most important books in my life have arrived by providence. As a teenager, I stumbled upon one enormous literary discovery after another. My father gifted me his worn paperback editions of Galway Kinnell and James Wright when I was just fourteen; at sixteen, I found a coffee-stained copy of Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988) abandoned on a table at a local café. The work of American short story writer Andre Dubus arrived in a similarly serendipitous way.

During the bitterly cold February of my twenty-third year, I made a Sunday pilgrimage to an independent bookstore. It was a bland store—utilitarian metal bookshelves, unremarkable carpeting, humming fluorescent lights—but I could always count on the staff's recommendations. I had never heard of Dubus before, and it would be years of mispronunciation before I learned that his last name rhymes with "abuse," like "duh-byoos." But that day, Dancing After Hours (Knopf, 1996) leapt out at me.

I plucked the book from the shelf. On the back cover, comparisons to Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver caught my eye, as did mentions of the obsessions I would soon come to understand were hallmarks of Dubus's work: tenderness, hurt, courage, redemption. I opened the paperback and submitted it to a test I would later discover Dubus himself was fond of: I read the opening lines of a few stories. By the end of the first line of "The Timing of Sin," I was ready to plunk down my twelve dollars: "On a Thursday night in early autumn she nearly committed adultery, was within minutes of consummating it, or within touches, kisses; it was difficult to measure by time or by her mouth and tongue and hands, or by his."

Over the next week, I carefully read each story in Dancing After Hours; over the following weeks, I reread the stories. And it wasn't long before I had collected and read everything Dubus had written. I quickly discovered that his work was not easy; the stories were fraught with hard moments of loneliness, heartache, violence, adultery, rape, murder, and abortion. "I think honest writers write about what bothers them," Dubus once said of his choice of subject matter.

Though some have found his narratives too dark or brooding, I was startled and impressed by the richness of the characters Dubus sketched. He populated his stories with complex characters that are neither all good nor all evil, neither all right nor all wrong—but none of them seemed completely beyond the possibility of redemption. This touch of kindheartedness amazed me. As I read, his characters became a part of my consciousness and my understanding of humanity: a young boy haunted by the urge to masturbate ("If They Knew Yvonne"); a young girl struggling with her weight ("The Fat Girl"); a wife caught in the moment of accepting and dealing with the consequences of her failed marriage ("Adultery"); a father hypnotized by the false hope promised by revenge ("Killings"); and another father, this one divorced, torn between doing what is "right" and protecting his daughter ("A Father's Story"). With a delicate touch that many writers lack, Dubus could skim the surface of sentimentality even as he graced his characters with quiet dignity.

I learned later that like so many of his inscrutable yet familiar characters, Dubus himself was a complex man. A thrice-divorced devout Catholic who fathered six children—including Andre Dubus III, the author of House of Sand and Fog (Norton, 1999)—by two women, Dubus was a barrel-chested ex-marine who liked a stiff drink and the occasional bar fight, but had a propensity to cry during schmaltzy movies. He could be distracted and distant at times, but many describe him as one of the most tender, sentimental people they've ever known.

I understand now that his writing has been a twofold gift in my life. As a writer, the short stories taught me about compression and point of view, and as a human being they gave me a deeper understanding of empathy and compassion.

Perhaps more than any other American writer of his generation, Andre Dubus was fiercely devoted to the short story. "I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live," Dubus once wrote. "They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice."

While his stories would eventually earn him fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, as well as the PEN/Malamud Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and nominations for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Dubus struggled to find a foothold in a publishing world dominated by novels. His devotion to the short story kept him off the best-seller list, and even today Dubus remains largely unknown to the general public, praised instead as a "writer's writer." New readers are likely to have discovered Dubus by way of In the Bedroom and We Don't Live Here Anymore, two award-winning films adapted from his stories. Yet Dubus has influenced scores of today's short story practitioners, including Chris Offutt, Robert Olmstead, Tobias Wolff, and Monica Wood, and is greatly admired by E. L. Doctorow, John Irving, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and John Updike.


Belated thanks

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.

Belated thanks

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.