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Writers and Friends

Remembering the fiction—and outsized personality—of Andre Dubus

By Tobias Wolff | October 4, 2018
Courtesy David R. Godine, Publisher

I first met Andre Dubus in 1981, at a dinner in the home of his publisher and friend David Godine. Andre had written me some months earlier to say he’d liked a story of mine and that he hoped we could get together sometime. I had been reading his stories for years, and teaching them in my classes, as did writer friends of mine, so I was grateful to David when he arranged this dinner, grateful and anxious in a puppyish sort of way. Andre was the last to arrive. I was having a drink with the other guests when he made his entrance—an expression I use deliberately, because, as I came to learn, that man could never simply walk into a room. He had to take it by storm. His raucous voice preceded him like a fanfare, there was some crashing about in the hallway, then he came bustling in, laughing, loud, teeth flashing in his beard, short and bullish in his dense, muscular physicality, advancing directly on us as if to plunge a horn between our ribs.

Advancing on me, I should say. He must have recognized my face from the photo on my book, because he came straight up to me and grabbed my ears and pulled my face down to his and gave me a smacking wet kiss on the lips. Then he stepped back and burst out laughing at my evident shock and horror. It wasn’t the introduction I’d imagined, but it certainly worked as an icebreaker. He had, among his other gifts, a talent for keeping me off balance, a talent he honed to perfection through the nearly two decades of the close friendship that followed this peculiar beginning.

I’d first encountered his work in a back issue of Ploughshares, a story called “Corporal of Artillery.” Having spent four years in the military, I was struck by his faithful rendering of that life, and the way the story identified the potential for significant experience in peacetime rather than implying, as most fiction with a military setting does, that important things happen to men only when they are at war.

From that story I moved on to his collection Adultery & Other Choices, of which “Corporal of Artillery” is a part, and was struck by the emotional honesty of Dubus’s voice, its seriousness, richness, intimacy, and—over a range of subjects, through different characters and settings—his signature braiding of moral concern with compassion for those caught in spiritually challenging situations.

My own first brush with his fiction was to some degree misleading—Dubus is not a “military” writer, important as that experience, that subject, was to him. A relatively small part of his work concerns the uniformed life, and though we can sense his keen interest and sometime affection for a community at least nominally devoted to values of brotherhood, loyalty, and courage, his work is also critical of that life, dealing as it does with the evil of men being frozen in a vision of manhood that discourages tenderness, enthusiasm, the admission of need for encouragement and love—that teaches them to spurn the warmest springs of their humanity.

We see that complex, illusionless sense of the limitations of military life in his short story “Deaths at Sea.” Here the brotherhood of the uniform is exposed as an ideal always subject to conditions, in this case the condition of race. Several sailors are waiting on a pier in Japan for a launch to return them to their ship after a night on the town. A white sailor calls a black sailor the inevitable incendiary name; they fight, tumble into the water, and the white sailor drowns. Left there, we would have a familiar story of backward, working-class resentments finding their usual scapegoat, but in fact we see the same divisive conditions played out among the officers on board the ship, where a white fighter pilot from Georgia is happy to lecture a young black officer about the liberal, Northern misunderstanding of antebellum Southern culture, especially the pernicious myth that slaves were mistreated: “Why in hell would a man whip or starve the people that kept him rich? Hell, those old boys sent their sons to the War Between the States, but not their slaves. No sir. The slave was a valuable piece of property. You see what I mean?”

The black officer sees exactly what he means. He has seen it all his life, and now must confront the fact that he will continue to see it and live with it in this community, for all its lofty professions of equality in the service of country. The story is further complicated by the reactions of the white narrator, himself a young Southern officer and the roommate of the black officer, to the challenges created by the recent integration of this once monolithically white officer corps. He strives to be open minded and just in his actions, but cannot shake the discomfort he feels in proximity to his roommate, which expresses itself in an effortful, at times mawkish attempt to offer friendship, and to show his right-mindedness and freedom from prejudice. In other words, he exerts himself in ways he would not think to do with a white roommate, and we see in his striving, awkward, but good-willed attempts at solidarity the narrator’s guilt-tinged struggle with his own conditioning, the history and culture that have shaped him. This gives the man, and the story, a prophetic authenticity. For all our egalitarian dreams, as individuals and as a society, we are fated always to contend with the demons of our history. Contend we must, and contend we will, but it has not become easier, and probably will never be easier, than it is for this narrator and his roommate.

Despite its military setting and implicit social commentary, “Deaths at Sea” is essentially a personal story, in the sense that it locates the real drama of the narrative not in the attempts of its protagonist to overcome some external threat or evil, like racism, but in his own internal struggles, his attempts to overcome himself. We see that pattern throughout Dubus’s work. In “Love Is the Sky,” Curtis Boudreaux is invited by his college-student son Jack to a football game on Dad’s Day. Curtis drives to the campus and discovers that his son is living not with a girl, as he happily imagined, but with a man. Jack is gay, and finally, under pressure, reveals this to his father. Nothing in Curtis’s life has prepared him for this. His vision of being father to a son was entirely shaped by the conventions of his society and Boudreaux family tradition: fathers and sons hunt and fish together; work together, with the son to inherit the firm. Sons marry and give grandchildren—preferably grandsons—to their fathers, and thus the cycle is renewed. They do not love and cohabit with other men.

Curtis’s shock at this revelation causes him to renounce his son. He tells Jack not to come home again. From this dismal scene he goes on to the football game with a doctor friend of his, but he is not at peace with himself. He cannot make sense of what has happened, and what he has done. He knows he was wrong, and that he must make amends, but he doesn’t know how. He is lost, overwhelmed by a sense of his own mortality. Here we see a man who with some moral shorthand might be cartooned as a brutish homophobe, a mere bigot, but even as we are made witness to his earlier hopes for his son, the cultural and familial limitations he has inherited and unreflectively assumed, we see him begin to resist those bonds, and to imagine scenes of reconciliation and acceptance. But he cannot imagine them all the way through. He doesn’t know how. Though he wants to love his son without conditions, knows he should love him without conditions, he is unable to break through the hard shell his personal and cultural history have formed around him. The story does not allow us to despise him. Finally, he is a touching and even tragic figure, a decent, well-meaning man defeated by assumptions “natural” to his place and time and tribe, that have taken deep root in his spirit without his ever being aware of their malignance.

Dubus’s recognition of the disabling power of inherited convictions and social constraints does not necessarily doom his people to play tragic roles. Indeed, it also offers them the possibility of braving social cost and asserting their freedom—as in his masterly novella Voices from the Moon—and even acting heroically, as in his story “Rose.”

Rose is married to a man she once “hoped to love,” a construction worker who has turned hard and bitter with disappointment and drink. He begins to abuse their three young children, two girls and a boy, at first with shouts and hisses, then with his large hands. The boy, only five, suffers particularly from his father’s moods. Rose does not want to irritate him further by protesting or arguing. She tries to placate him, to get her family through these moments, for the sake of her marriage and what she understands to be her duty to her husband. She is Catholic, and lazily, unreflectively assumes that she is somehow doing what is expected of her by playing the part of a loyal wife and tolerating this increasingly brutal, dangerous situation. Thus, she becomes a partner to evil, of the worst kind—a silent partner.

But finally her husband goes too far, and breaks through Rose’s passivity and fear. In rousing herself at last, and acting from the fierce, protective love she feels for her children, she discovers that she is not the meek, powerless creature she has imagined herself to be, and allowed herself to be. She rises to meet the evil in her home, and heroically overcomes it, though tardily, and not without penalty.

“Voices from the Moon” is my favorite of all Andre Dubus’s stories and novellas. It concerns itself unabashedly and unsentimentally with love—the love of parents for their children, of men for women and women for women, of a boy’s love for God, and a teenage girl’s love for cigarettes. The story is too rich to paraphrase, but in brief, a divorced man has fallen in love with his son’s ex-wife, and she with him. They mean to live together. The family is shaken to its roots by the apparent betrayals involved, and not least by the social impropriety of such an arrangement—its radical flouting of convention. Yet as the story proceeds we see its people react not with the sort of virtuous outrage we might expect, but with hard-won understanding, generosity, forgiveness, and love. In essence, the family members declare their independence from submissive concern or embarrassment about how things might look to others, finding freedom in their refusal to let their lives be shaped by the expectations and decorums of social custom. Sensational as the premise of the story may be—it was inspired by a newspaper article Dubus happened upon—he illuminates his people’s lives not by heating up the drama inherent in their situation, but by allowing each of them quiet, ordinary moments in which to reveal themselves, to profound, extraordinary effect. It is altogether Dubus’s strangest, most moving and beautiful piece of work.

Reading his stories again, I find myself acutely missing Andre, who died in 1999. I miss his growly voice. I miss his constant needling, conducted over the phone when he couldn’t do it in person. Though I had told him truly and repeatedly that my service in Vietnam had not been heroic or even competent, he insisted on calling me Silent Death, affecting to believe that my disavowals were mere self-deprecation, and a sort of proof that I had single-handedly waged terrible war against the enemy.

I miss the pleasures our families shared—angling for bluefish, watching a movie, listening to Sinatra, sending out for pizza, talking about books we loved, telling stories, always telling stories. My young sons, loving his swagger and bluster, called him Yosemite Sam.

I miss the meetings of a support group Andre and I founded, Sissies Anonymous. We were the core members and usually the only members in attendance, though we welcomed drop-ins. S.A. was open to former Marines, SEALS, paratroopers like me, and all those fellows we knew who had chosen tough military duty or manly civilian work to prove they weren’t sissies, though in their hearts they knew they were, yes, and always would be. We gave tearful testimonials of recovery and backsliding, though neither of us could sustain recovery long enough to earn a chip—he would cry at the first words of a grandchild, I would cry at the death of an animal in a movie. Hopeless. How grateful I am for those days, that friendship, the stories Andre told, the stories he wrote.

This essay is adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming book The Cross Country Runner by Andre Dubus. Copyright © Tobias Wolff 2018, from The Cross Country Runner by Andre Dubus, published by David R. Godine, Publisher.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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