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

Joshua Bodwell

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.

The nine chapters of the 126-page novella alternate between the viewpoints of Richie Stowe, a serious twelve-year-old who plans to become a priest, and the other members of the boy’s family. The story takes place over the course of a single day and is centered on the revelation that Richie’s divorced father plans to marry the ex-wife of Richie’s older brother—the father’s own former daughter-in-law. Such a plot could easily become soap opera, but with his plain language and astute characterization Dubus weaves a tale that leaves the reader feeling, if not affection, then at least empathy for every member of the family.

In Voices From the Moon, Dubus balances the themes and preoccupations that define his oeuvre—religion, guilt, compassion, sex, spirituality, tenderness, acceptance, violence, and morality—and he does it from the shifting viewpoints of a father, son, mother, daughter, husband, wife, and lover. They are normal people doing mundane things, but while these characters might appear simple, they are not simpletons.

Near the end of the story, Richie’s long-suffering mother voices what sound like some of Dubus’s own philosophies about people and life. In an attempt to comfort her eldest son, who is shocked and distressed that his own father would marry his ex-wife, the mother explains that she likes her coworkers because they don’t have any “delusions” about life. “We don’t have to live great lives,” she says, “we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.” This epiphany is the kind of earnest, audacious blanket of grace that Dubus was never afraid to cast over his characters.

The winter I first read Dancing After Hours, I did not know—and would not until I bought his collection of essays, Meditations From a Moveable Chair (Knopf, 1998)—that Dubus was bound to a wheelchair, a “cripple,” as he put it, for the last thirteen years of his life.

On July 23, 1986, while driving home from Boston, Dubus stopped to help Luz and Luis Santiago, a brother and sister from Puerto Rico who had collided with a motorcycle that had been abandoned on the highway. While Dubus struggled to communicate with the Santiagos, usher the pair off the road, and flag down more help, an oncoming car traveling nearly sixty miles an hour struck Dubus and Luis. The young man, only twenty-three, was killed instantly. Dubus was thrown over the cars hood and landed in a crumpled, bleeding mass on the other side—alive but with thirty-four broken bones. Moments before the impact, Dubus had pushed Luz out of harm’s way, likely saving her life. Yet he did so at great sacrifice: Dubus lost his left leg below the knee and his right leg was crushed to the point of uselessness.

The accident was a massive blow to the ex-marine, who loved physical exercise (especially running and weight lifting), and who was, in some ways, defined by his physicality. Two years later, Dubus’s third wife left him and took their two young daughters with her. Overwhelmed and in continual pain, he slipped into a dark depression and, for a time, struggled to write fiction.

Dubus slowly regained his confidence by writing essays and through the support he received from the writers who gathered every Thursday night at his house. When he did tackle fiction again, what he wrote—the stories that would become Dancing After Hours—could easily have spiraled into bitterness and self-pity. Instead, his work grew even more generous, more empathetic.

About a year after I discovered Dancing After Hours, I sleuthed out a mailing address for Dubus and wrote him a letter of gratitude. A few weeks later I learned that, at the age of sixty-two, Dubus had died of heart failure. The date was February 24, 1999. A month or so passed, and then a letter with the return address “Dubus” eerily appeared in my mailbox. I nervously opened it and found that it was from Andre Dubus III. He had written to say he had found my letter, and then he did a beautiful thing: He thanked me for thanking his dad.

The first time I met Dubus III in person, he told me about the unexpected way his father had influenced his art. “It’s not his fine work,” he told me, “but seeing him walk daily into his downstairs study in our tiny rented house and try to write something beautiful for someone he would probably never even meet. It’s that image that gave me permission as a young man to view writing as a legitimate line of work to devote one’s life to.”

Andre Dubus cared a great deal for people. There is no better evidence than the words he put to paper. The best of his work leaves us feeling uneasy and vulnerable from the shock of recognition—nervous that this man not only knows our secrets, but that he might understand them better than we do. Though Dubus himself may have been as complex as the characters he created, his stories offer what only great art can: They provide counsel for the heart.

Joshua Bodwell is a Maine-based journalist and fiction writer. His profile of Richard Ford appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.


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.