The Trouble He's Seen: A Profile of John Dufresne

Eve Richardson

So how did the eldest of four children of French-Canadian parents, a boy who grew up in the Catholic, blue-collar Grafton Hill neighborhood of Worcester, Massachusetts, a boy for whom it was beyond imagining that a man might find his vocation in words, become a noted short story writer (The Way That Water Enters Stone, Norton, 1991), a sought-after teacher of creative writing (Florida International University, Miami), and the author of three acclaimed novels, two of which are set well below the Mason-Dixon line?

At his family's kitchen table, the young Dufresne reveled in gossipy stories about neighbors and relatives.

In part, the answer is a keen ear for the music of language and an eye for the telling detail; Dufresne writes as capably of his native New England as of the South, where he has lived now for twenty years. In greater part, the answer lies in his having known the value of good storytelling from the time he was old enough to follow a narrative arc. At his family's kitchen table, the young Dufresne reveled in gossipy stories about neighbors and relatives.

"Stories at home were in a language I recognized and admired. Characters were independent, eccentric, quirky. Like Uncle George, who claimed to be pals with all the Red Sox. When he drove home from Fort Devens in a jeep he said the colonel lent him because they were friends, we believed him. Until the MPs showed up," Dufresne says.

In books at school, he couldn't find his family, himself, his neighbors, so books meant little. "But stories," he says, "meant everything." Meantime, Dufresne filled his adolescence with baseball and movies. And when, finally, he heard a narrative voice as compelling as those in his family's kitchen, it had a Southern accent: "In the work of Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Harper Lee," Dufresne says, "I found characters who have been held out of the mainstream or have decided to hold out. The honesty was attractive and familiar. I knew the world was a mess because I saw young men grown pale, soft, and cynical, all up and down Grafton Hill in the Diamond Café, the Cosmopolitan Club, Jack's, Uncle Charlie's Tavern, the American Legion, sitting in the dark watching TV, smoking, drinking shots and beers, reminiscing.… I saw friends, teenagers already alcoholics, toothless and conniving."

That people like his friends and neighbors and relatives could populate the landscape of a novel or short story was a revelation to the young Dufresne. He saw that the world of literature and the world he lived in—at home and in his first jobs: pot scrubber in a nursing home kitchen, newspaper boy, yard worker—and the value system he knew ("You owe your community, your family") could coexist. Following graduation from Worcester State College, he devoted seven years to working in government-funded drug prevention and crisis centers—and he wrote stories. After that he was administrator of an alternative school and a drop-in center for troubled teens—and he wrote stories. Through a first marriage and, seven years later, a divorce, he wrote stories (with no idea what to do with them; but still he wrote). Hitchhiking cross-country on $27, he returned home with (change and) stories. He and a friend started a house-painting company ("It was ludicrous," Dufresne says. "I had no car. My friend was legally blind. We carried our ladders and equipment on the bus.") but still he kept writing, putting the stories in a drawer. Then a friend won a national poetry contest and had her book published. With this news came another revelation: It could be done. Resolving to leave town, family, friends, expectations, commitments, he applied to writing programs, using his acceptance at the University of Arkansas, he says, "as the match to burn my bridges."

Dufresne traveled South driving, in his phrase, "a rusted GMC Vandura" he bought from Kachedorian's West Side Market for $400. "It smelled like lamb," he says. En route, the transmission seized and he rolled into Fayetteville in first gear. He sold Vandura's shell for $25, and a week later he was sitting in a beer garden surrounded by fellow MFA students who believed, as he did, that there was nothing in the world more important than writing poems and stories. "I started writing like crazy," Dufresne says, "and haven't stopped."

At Arkansas, studying with John Clellon Holmes ("a hero of mine"), Bill Harrison, and others, he learned the mechanics of plot and the necessity of avoiding "show-off prose." To these lessons he added his keen grasp of the music of language, the one of his youth and the one he was newly immersed in. The immigrant English he'd grown up hearing was about conveying information—"Forget nuance," Dufresne says. Southerners, by contrast, wanted music. "New Englanders want to know 'why' in twenty-five or fewer words. A Monroyan [two of his books are set in Monroe, Louisiana] and people I was meeting from Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia want to tell you 'why' in as many words as possible—Indulgently, discursively, lyrically, following every tangent.