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

Joshua Bodwell

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 car's 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.