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

Eve Richardson

"The two impulses, one toward definition and efficiency, the other toward seduction and song, are not mutually exclusive. When I write about the North, the former impulse guides me; about the South, the latter. How you tell a truth, how you attend to gesture and detail, shapes that truth."

Childhood stories, hard work, and, ultimately, the community of writers at Arkansas served him well. Closeted stories began to see print, and he sent "a manuscript's worth" to the literary agent Richard McDonough, who liked them. So did the editor Jill Bialosky at Norton, who contracted The Way That Water Enters Stone. When she asked for one more story to round out the collection, Dufresne wrote "The Fontana Gene," which would inspire his first novel, Louisiana Power & Light, and what is now being called his best work yet, Deep in the Shade of Paradise.

Unfailingly fallible, often quirky, human to the last molecule, seeking a coherent existence in an oft-mad world, and pursued by Trouble, Dufresne characters amble, race, teeter along his thread-thin line between tragedy and comedy. Yet, logical or no, they don't give up. In "My Love, My Dove, My Undefiled" (The Way That Water…), Adlai Birdsong (who reappears in Dufresne's new book) declares himself to 16-year-old Anniece Pate—in spray paint on the city water tower—"Anniece, My Love is Strong as Death." But Anniece plans to marry rich. Undaunted, Adlai plays his violin beneath her window, where he also plants daylilies, all to no avail. Distraught, he searches his soul. Weeks later, during a storm, in a flash of lightning Anniece reads, newly spray-painted on the water tower, "My sister, my love, my undefiled."

In his second novel, Love Warps the Mind a Little (Norton, 1997), Dufresne writes, "Love is anticipation and memory, uncertainty and longing. It's unreasonable, of course. Nothing begins with so much excitement and hope and pleasure as love, except maybe writing a story. And nothing fails as often, except writing stories. And like a story, love must be troubled to be interesting. We crave love, can't live without its intimacy, though it pains us. Judi told me that every person in therapy has a love disorder: never felt love, can't find love, trapped by love, unraveled by love, thinks love is lust or love is loss, fears love, loves too much, uses love for profit, jealous in love, lost in love, love affairs, unrequited love—love in embers, love in vain, love in shackles, love maligned, love that warps the mind a little." In this lyrical novel, Dufresne illustrates how inextricable love is from the human condition—as tightly entwined as the inevitability of loss. Yet in the bleakness of that prospect, Dufresne comforts the reader with "the miraculous beauty of his tale-telling" (New York Times Book Review) and the cruel, saving grace of the requisite quotidian: "While you wash chemotherapy-induced vomit from your lover's shoes, you worry that you may not have time, before work, to call your wife, pay the telephone bill, walk the dog. Why did you get in this mess?"

"The most important question a fiction writer can ask is, 'Why?'" says Dufresne. "I write to try to figure out the things in life I don't understand. I confront the human condition. What makes us human, what we have in common, is trouble." Which may be why he returns from time to time to the most troubled of all his characters, the Fontana clan.

In Deep in the Shade of Paradise, trouble is set in motion by Grisham Loudermilk, cousin to Earlene deBastrop Fontana (widow of Billy Wayne), and his decision to wed Ariane Thevenot. The family gather for the wedding at Paradise, their ancestral home in the small Monroe suburb of Shiver-de-Freeze (a mangling of the original French). Punctuating the novel with classical allusions, sex, hilarity, and the playlet "Evangeline, As Performed By the Mechanics of Shiver-de-Freeze" (his spin on Midsummer Night's Dream), Dufresne mixes up matters and people, but the antics never undercut the book's larger themes of love and loss. Even when characters are flat-out funny, the author renders them as seriously as they take themselves. Conversation at meetings of the Shiver-de-Freeze Great Books Club is no less provocative for the group's idiosyncratic membership. To see his work solely in terms of humor, ignoring its serious underpinnings, is to sell book and writer short and to miss half the value of his work.

Another characteristic of Dufresne's work is the manifestation of the process of writing in his fiction. Sometimes he explores writing through the occupation of his characters. In LP&L, a young Earlene Fontana (Billy Wayne's then-wife) salves her loneliness writing country songs at the kitchen table late at night. Lafayette Proulx, in Love Warps the Mind a Little, is a struggling fiction writer (and fry cook at a fish joint). The reader follows the travails of his fictional characters, Dale and Theresa, along with the raveling of Laf's life.

In Louisiana Power & Light, the town where the novel is set narrates the story, functioning as a Greek chorus. In Deep in the Shade of Paradise, the town-as-narrator returns, and in addition to telling the story, it addresses the author, offering philosophical and critical remarks to which the author responds, refuting them or otherwise setting the record straight.

To further explicate the madcap convolutions of love, marriage, and genealogy, Dufresne provides readers with family trees, an Epilogue, and a faux-scholarly yet genuinely informative Appendix to which he refers the reader throughout, and which is a perfect rendering of the Southern manner of rambling gracefully and lyrically through an explanation. In contrast to improbable characters in whom Dufresne's enviable sleight-of-mind makes us thoroughly believe (including Tous-les-Doux, Siamese twin teenage girls with a crush on the Fontana heir, and Miranda, who makes her home in an Airstream trailer and her living as a chicken sexer), Dufresne creates a tender relationship between 11-year-old Boudou Fontana, whose eidetic memory has caught the interest of a university research group, and the aging Royce Birdsong, whose Alzheimer's symptoms make it hard for him to keep up with his teeth, let alone his thoughts. (You'll keep a finger in the "Family Trees" section.)

Dufresne is an accurate observer of contemporary American values. That his characters are frequently dysfunctional reflects nothing more exotic than our culture's malaise: Dufresne characters dwell, often, in lonely, arid places of the heart familiar to many readers. He gives us plenty of gravity. And questions. And laughter. And reasons to live: "I'm dead serious in my books," he says. "I don't think tragedy is ever trivial. Illness and death are so serious, in fact, that we cannot bear them without relief."

Eve Richardson's fiction, poems, essays, and articles appear in national publications. She lives in Augusta, Georgia, where she is writing a collection of stories.