When I started writing my essay “We Don’t Have to Live Great Lives: The Art of Reading Andre Dubus,” I knew that I wanted to discuss the late author’s gift for writing female characters. I quickly gathered several quotes on the subject from well-known authors such as Tobias Wolff and John Updike, but then it struck me: I had a bunch of men talking about how well Dubus could write women. I knew that I needed a female writer’s insight.
Best-selling novelist and short story writer Ann Beattie has long admired Dubus’s work. I tracked the author down in Key West, Florida, where she was spending the winter, and asked if she would share her thoughts on Dubus and his female characters. Beattie not only sent me the comments that appear in my essay, but she also included her views of the Dubus stories “Andromache” and “The Fat Girl,” both from his second collection, Adultery and Other Choices (David R. Godine, 1977).
“Andromache” is the story of Ellen, the widow of a Marines Corps pilot who must find a way to raise their two young children. “They found Joe’s body, but she never saw it,” writes Dubus, “and the funeral was with closed caskets. Ellen sat erectly between Posy and Ronnie. She did not cry….” Beattie writes that the story is a “prototypical tale of how life is in the military, but the military, ultimately, offers no clearer ability for one to triumph than engaging in something overtly reckless.”
“The Fat Girl,” which Beattie describes as “almost a fairy tale, but one gone very wrong,” is the story of Louise, whose mother tells her, at age nine, “If you’re fat the boys won’t like you.” In fifteen pages, Dubus walks the reader through Louise’s secretive eating habits as a teen, her starvation diet as a college student, and her marriage to Richard, a young lawyer in her father’s firm who Dubus describes as a “lean, tall, energetic man with the metabolism of a pencil sharpener.”
Beattie was generous enough to allow me to share her extended takes on these two vintage Dubus stories as a companion to my essay, which appears in the July/August 2008 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. For those who know Dubus’s work, her short essays may well shed a new light on the stories; for those who have yet to read the stories, they offer ample reason to start.
“Andromache” gives us the 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 character, because the writer can take liberties with chronology, while the plot transpires as it does. I can see thinking of Ellen as accepting of difficulties (she does identify them as such; she’s not obtuse or in denial) but she seems to have no fail-safe if the status quo isn’t maintained. And when, in stories, is it? She seems very much an extension of her husband, Joe, and of his desires and opinions.
I see the story as more of a comment on military life that asks all characters to be withholding, rather than a story about a particular marriage. There’s a lot of drinking. They’re being dictated to by the military—Joe has his role to play (no doubt conditioned by his context) and Ellen has her role to play, also. But it has cracks, long before the accident: She feels condescended to (the cookies); 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. Clearly, Joe isn’t going to be at odds with anything, though Ellen is—however well she acts, as expected. 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 them 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.
It’s a sneaky story: We know from the outset that Joe is dead, then move 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. Apparently he was the one who thought himself invincible and did not know. Since we’re often irrationally angry at the dead for having died, he escapes the reader as he escapes his family. The story is about what’s left, and I guess a new form of power is implied in their going forward.
The Fat Girl
“The Fat Girl,” one of my favorites, reads almost like a clinical study. We feel a bit as if we’re spying (we are, and in “Andromache,” too) and seeing the private moments that ruin what might go right. The reader pretty much has to take sides. And since the nice roommate, Carrie, is willing to help Louise, it would be inhumane not to take that side—so that the reader thinks, “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 struggle with her mother. But there’s real affection there, and, arguably, it trumps the relationship Louise has with her husband. We observe that Louise can get only so far, 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? And we see that she wants to be alone, that she is more than willing to have him simply gone—this is explicit in the last paragraph. I’m not sure it’s a male-female problem so much as it’s a story about power.
Books by Andre Dubus
The Lieutenant (Dial Press, 1967)
Separate Flights (Godine,1975)
Adultery and Other Choices (Godine, 1977)
Finding a Girl in America (Godine, 1980)
The Times Are Never So Bad (Godine, 1983)
Voices from the Moon (Godine, 1984)
We Don’t Live Here Anymore (Crown Publishers, 1984)
The Last Worthless Evening (Godine, 1986)
Selected Stories (Godine, 1988)
Broken Vessels (Godine, 1991)
Selected Stories (Vintage, 1995)
Dancing After Hours (Knopf, 1996)
Meditations from a Movable Chair (Knopf, 1998)