Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dubus Two

My previous post on Andre Dubus was more or less by way of setting up this one, in which I’d like to talk about The Garden of Last Days, by Andre Dubus III. Father and son share a lot of the same writerly talents and inclinations. They both tend to write with great patience and attentiveness and compassion about the lives of ordinary people. They both have a terrific ear for dialogue and an ability to render the interior movements of the minds of their characters in a sympathetic and convincing manner. And though they might not necessarily think of themselves in exactly these terms, they both are in some sense archaeologists of America and the American experience in the late 20th and early 21st experience. If you had asked me a year ago what contemporary novel I might nominate for serious consideration as a candidate for Great American Novel, I would probably have suggested Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, in which McCarthy drew upon all that he had learned in his previous writings, restricted himself to a more traditionally structured plot line based on a smaller set of characters, came up with taut and yet flexible narrative style, and put together a quintessentially American odyssey which moved with originality and grace across all sorts of American archetypes.

If you were to ask me today, I’d have to say, Cormac, move over, you’ve got company. The Garden of Last Days is a remarkable novel. If not The Great American Novel, at least a great American novel. Which is not to say that it is a fun read. On the contrary, a great deal of what is to be found between its covers is painful and disquieting. Set in the five days before September 11, it focuses in on seven characters: April, a young woman is attempting to support herself and her three-year-old daughter Franny by working as a stripper in a Florida night club; Lonnie, one of the bouncers at the club; AJ, one of its patrons; his wife Deena; Jean, April’s elderly landlady; and Bassam al-Jizani, who is about to step onto the stage of history as one of the 9/11 highjackers. (Dubus based his characterizations of the highjackers on actual historical figures, but changed their names. He wants it to be clear he is not writing a historical novel as such. On the Norton web site, he has a short esssay in which he says, "I had no desire to write about September 11th. But to write stories is to paint our dream world, to move through shadow.")

The story rotates through the voices of these characters, taking us into their heads again and again as they move through a series of events in which everything they think they know about themselves is ultimately put to the test. None of these characters, with the possible exception of Bassam, has much of a vision beyond getting past today. They are ordinary people, trying to get something now to store up against a tomorrow that doesn’t look a whole lot better. There are very close detailed descriptions of the day-to-day and minute-to-minute lives of those who work at and visit the strip club. On one particular night, events spiral out of control in ways that change the lives of all of the characters forever.

Dubus is very good at putting us inside their minds as they reflect on what they are themselves unable to recognize as spiritual emptiness. Here, for example, is Lonnie, reflecting routines of the culture he inhabits:

You work till two, hang around and have a drink until three, then go home and try to sleep but you’re too wired and on edge so you flick on the TV and drink. You’ve got cable and two hundred stations but there’s never anything that holds your interest: a lion eating the cubs of the lioness he means to mount; a set of kitchen knives that’ll cut through Sheetrock before slicing your tomatoes with one stroke; music videos of black kids up in the cities with their goofy loose clothes and gaudy chains, their shiny cars and sun-washed mansions; a nun smiling serenely into the camera, quoting from the Bible—a book Lonnie meant to get on tape but kept forgetting to order; there was a cop show from when he was a kid that his old man watched because he liked the big-muscled wisecracking lead; there were shows dedicated to reducing the size of your waist and ass; shows on how to become rich without ever putting down one of your own dollars; there were cable news stations of executions in the Mideast somewhere, bearded men shooting people where they knelt in the soft ground of stadiums where on another day athletes would kick a soccer ball over the blood; there were sports channels, dozens of them, all those bright uniforms and flying balls and over-excited fans; and there was history: world history, United States history, even the history of torture devices—an Egyptian designed a hollow brass lion under which would be prepared a raging fire and it was built so that the condemned inside the lion, the one who screamed his last screams, would sound like the lion, its brass mouth open, and into this device the Egyptian torturer was confined by his king, eager to see how it worked. (249)

Lonnie is awash in data, in information, in imagery, but he has no means for sorting out what is significant and what is not. He is vaguely aware of the presence of religious fundamentalists “in the Mideast somewhere” without being able to process that information. He, like pretty much everyone else in America, is pretty oblivious at this point in time about exactly how relevant that seemingly random image in a seemingly random list is going to become in a few days.

Deena, like Lonnie, is stuck in a life she didn’t quite bargain for. She meets her husband AJ at work, and in short order is romanced and made pregnant and married. Here is her reflection on her swift descent from happiness to her own particular version of hell:

There was the justice of the peace and AJ training in heavy equipment, then working with Daddy. They bought this abandoned house AJ fixed up by himself. The baby grew and grew and she came to love this new direction her life had taken. She loved how much attention her mother and father gave her, how her mom would take her shopping for baby things and at night and on weekends Daddy would smile over at her the way he did when she was a little kid, as if she were the only girl ever invented. Before falling asleep beside her, AJ would say those three words to her and she’d say them back and she didn’t feel like a liar saying them but she didn’t feel them much either. Then they were in this house and she didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but it was a tiny house. They painted it in whites and yellows, but still, she couldn’t breathe in it. During the long days when AJ was at work and she was alone with Cole, his toys scattered over the floor so she couldn’t walk anywhere without stepping on one, she’d take him outside to play in the grass and she’d sit in a lawn chair and try to get some sun on her legs and face and arms. She’d skim her magazines and try not to eat anything. That’s all she wanted to do—eat. She didn’t want to admit it and felt like an awful mother even thinking it, but she was bored just taking care of Cole. She loved him more than she loved the pumping of her own heart; she loved seeing the faces he made—curious, angry, confused, even sad and full of joy; she loved the way he would turn his blue eyes up at her as if she were the only other human being who ever lived; she loved that he came from her body yet had his own; she loved his hair and skin, his ears, and nose, and knees, the way they turned in like hers; she loved his sweet-milk smell, she loved his high voice and how he couldn’t say his r’s; she loved how he climbed into her lap to watch a video, how he fell asleep against her breasts.

Still, she needed to go out and do something. Even working at Walgreen’s had felt like something; she was serving people who needed things when they needed them and she got paid to make sure they got them. She liked that part the most. Getting that check with her name on it and cashing it and having that money in her pocket she’d earned. She saved over two thousand dollars but had to give every cent of it to AJ to go toward this place. That gave her some sense of pride, though—it did. But now she felt her time out in the world was already over. They couldn’t afford day care, but wouldn’t her mother watch Cole now? At least a few days or nights a week? Was Deena really going to spend the rest of her life just taking care of others? Her son and maybe more children, and AJ, who, these past three years had become a tired, short-tempered tangle of wants and needs she alone had to see to: she washed, dried, folded and put away his clothes. She made the bed after he left it, wiped down the sink after he’d shaved there, all those dark whisker nubs pooling at the faucet she had to wipe off too; she made sure that he had his lunch packed—almost always the same thing, smooth peanut butter with strawberry jelly, two bananas, a bag of Ruffles chips, and a thermos of lemonade. If she made him tuna instead, or substituted apples for bananas, she’d hear about it that night when she heard about everything else she wasn’t doing right: Why can’t you pick up the goddamn toys off the floor, D? Why do you cook with so much grease all the time? Didn’t Cole wear that shirt yesterday too? Why can’t you keep a couple cans of beer cold in the fridge, Deena? You have any idea how hot it gets running heavy machinery in this fuckin’ heat? (268-70)

There's much to admire here from a strictly technical perspective. I am particularly taken, for example, with the despair-inducing qualities of "all those dark whisker nubs pooling at the faucet." AJ has his own sad version of events in this story as well; suffice it to say that his "short-tempered tangle of wants and needs" leads him down the path to his own version of hell.

Basaam, the outsider, the anti-American, is the one character who has a spiritual perspective and larger aspirations in his life. He is a complex character who is simultaneously repulsed and attracted by what he sees of American culture. But his spiritual vision, such as it is, is inextricably linked to vengeance and violence. Here, from a passage late in the book, are his observations when, one day shortly before the highjacking, he finds himself at Harvard. He observes an American couple outside the library, and the girl he is watching smiles at him as she passes. Almost against his will, he is drawn inside:

High shelves across from him rise meters in the air. They are filled with books. He can smell them, their dusty pages. Their thick covers. He has never been in a place such as this, but there is the feeling he has—many times. All the people, quiet, working together but separately on similar tasks, the rising ceiling, the carpet beneath him—a mosque.

Basaam feels at the farthest edge of falling into a new knowledge, but who are these people to give a building of books the same respect as the holy place for the holy one? Look how they are stored with such precision and such respect when there is only one book to be read.

These stupid people. Look at them, their faces lowered to these pages, studying only the life of this world, preparing to rise within it, to rise in their unbelief to power they will use against his brothers and sisters. So often he has asked himself why do these kufar have so much power? Why have they been given all that they have?

… The kufar couple are sitting at a small table. They face one another. The woman’s foot rests on the man’s bare knee, and he reads as if he is not close to this woman, as if this means nothing. He is large. He is an athlete of some kind, and Basaam has often practiced against men his size, many times with Imad. The hand on the forehead, the jerking backward, the thrusting into the sking below the ear. He could do it now. He could walk into their area, stand a meter behind the man, pretend he is looking at the high window and its afternoon light, the ‘Asr prayer coming soon, very soon. She may look up at Basaam and smile again, so warmly as before, and he would strike, the blade pulled from the boy’s neck before he even feels the hand upon his forehead. The blood that must come. Her screams. Her eyes the eyes of one who can see now. (435-8)

I’ve quoted these passages at length simply to give some sense of the intensity of the inner lives of these characters. I once had occasion to tell Andre Dubus (the father) that many of his characters seemed more real to me than the people I actually know. This morning I happened to be reading Sven Birkets and ran across this passage in his essay “The Reading Life” (the introductory essay in Reading Life): “I don’t think I exaggerate if I affirm that I have been as much affected by D.H Lawrence’s Rupert Birkin, or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay... as I have by any number of flesh-and-blood people in my life... Woolf has made me privy to her perceptions and emotions, to the rhythms of her thought-process; through her represented consciousness I have known the grain of her most private awareness... I wonder who I have ever known in this way and what I have known. Is it necessarily inferior to the speculative half-knowing I have had with some of my work colleagues?"

Not every writer has the ability to bring us in close, to bring us inside the minds of others in a way that makes their lives seem whole in a way that gives perspective to our own. When it does happen, as in The Garden of Last Days, it makes for a profound reading experience.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Dubus One

Somewhere around 1979 I attended the Boston Globe Book Festival at the Hines Auditorium in Boston. While I was strolling from booth to booth, I happened upon a display of books from Godine publishers. In subsequent years I came to know them as a firm which published quality editions of interesting and varied works by writers overlooked by mainstream publishers, but at this time I knew nothing of them. I picked up several of the books on display, and was impressed with the physical construction of the books themselves: the texture of the paper, the way they were bound. They were books that invited you to hold them in your hands and turn the pages.

One stack of books also caught my eye because of the cover design. The books were large-format paperbacks with grey covers. On the cover of the first was a black-and-white photograph of a doorway with a two-panel door just slightly cracked ajar. On the cover of the other was another black and white photograph an empty bed: two pillows and a wrinkled sheet. The title of the first book was Separate Flights: A Novella and Seven Short Stories. The title of the second was Adultery and Other Choices. I picked them up, read a few passages here and there, and purchased both. That was my introduction to the works of Andre Dubus, who has for years been my most frequent answer to the question “Who is your favorite writer?”

Dubus is perhaps most often, and most accurately, described as a modern master of the short story. He is a writer of formidable erudition with a strong sense of craft, and yet his stories are anything but studied. His characters are the people you know, the people who live on your street, and their lives are ordinary and yet complex and profoundly mysterious in the way all of our lives are ordinary, and yet, at the heart of things, unfathomable. I heard him read on several occasions, and spoke with him after a reading one time for about fifteen minutes. When I asked him about his writerly heroes, he mentioned Chekhov, Gina Berriault, and Nadine Gordimer (“I worship at the hem of her garment.”) The day I spoke with him he was dressed in blue jeans, a t-shirt, and cowboy boots. In conversation, as in his fiction, he came across as smart and funny and down to earth.

Some time later I found an interview that he did on tape with Kay Bonetti, in which he elaborated on what he learned from Chekhov, and how he learned it:

I read Chekhov's “The Peasants,” no, it's just called “Peasants,” And I thought, that's strange, because he said he couldn't write narrative. How did he do this, because it's a thirty-page story, which covers one family, and its peasant village, and one year, and by doing that also painted a big canvas of what peasant society was like right after the freedom of the serfs. It's one of the best stories I've ever read and I finished the story and I said, well, if he did all that in thirty pages, he must've used compressed action so I re-read it immediately and I said, by god, it's all scenes. And each scene dramatizes more of his theme. He has a wonderful scene with two little girls, maybe five, six, seven years old, showing their innocence and their beauty and showing the effect of their sordid - not intentionally sordid, but sordid by circumstance - environment. They are told by their old granny, who has to keep the family going on nothing - if she gets a fish she'll make a soup out of it and save the head - they're told by granny to keep the goose out of the cabbage. The girls are lying on the slope of a hill and doing like Charlie Brown and his friends, looking at cloud formations, and one of the girls is the daughter of a woman who has and maintains her faith throughout the story. And she's telling the little girl about god and the angels, and then they start rolling down the hill and playing, and all of a sudden the grandmother comes out and beats them, because the goose got in the cabbage. Now the grandmother's reacting violently and unwisely, but she's also reacting that way because it's food. The little girls come in and it's a particular Russian religious day, I forget what season or what day, in the Russian Orthodox church, but they were not allowed to drink milk that day, and the girl who doesn't have religion says to the other one, "If Granny drinks milk will she go to hell?" she says "Yes, she'll burn," So they put some drops of milk in her bread and water and go back to the stove - they're always sitting on the stove in a Chekhov story - and watch her. And it's done. And that is part of a story. And I, and many writers, would have written that story. So I finished reading "Peasants" for the second time and I said, "Andre, you're thirty-something years old, I think it's time to learn how to write. I'm going to learn to compress, I'm going to learn to make transitions, I'm going to re-study Chekhov" and I really studied him rather than just read him for pleasure. And that's what I did, I started working on compressing and that is why I'm here. Yeah, he's one of my gods, and my two living ones are Gina Berriault and Nadine Gordimer, who I think write better short stories than anybody alive in the world.

What Dubus is saying here gives some sense not only of his sense of and concern for craft, but also of what is perhaps an even more important aspect of his consciousness as a writer: his compassion, his concern, not always directly stated but always present, for the spiritual welfare of his characters, even when, especially when, they are in trouble. He’s a writer for whom writing itself is in fundamental ways a spiritual discipline, as he states in this excerpt from a short essay written as an introduction to a reissue of his first book:

At the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul.

I have read and re-read Andre Dubus may times throughout the years, used his stories in my classes, and followed with great sympathy the trauma of his accident in 1986 when he was injured on the highway when he stopped to aid a motorist, and the painful unraveling of his personal life in the aftermath of that disaster, much of which is detailed in his 1991 collection of essays entitled Broken Vessels.

One of the essays in that volume, entitled “Under the Lights,” might serve to exemplify the resilience of spirit that Dubus not only aspired to but was able to attain as a writer. It describes some of Dubus’s experiences with the game of baseball, which he loved, and at one point focuses down on one particular memory he had of a minor league star named Billy Joe Barrett, who

one night in Lafayette…hit a baseball in a way I have never seen again… It started as a line drive over the second baseman, who leaped for it, his gloved hand reaching up then arcing down without the ball that had cleared by inches, maybe twelve of them, the glove’s leather fingers. Then in short right field the ball’s trajectory sharply rose, as though deflected higher and faster by angled air, and the right fielder stopped his motion toward it and simply stood and watched while the ball rose higher and higher and was still rising and tiny as it went over the lights in right field.

Dubus juxtaposes this memory against something he had read as a boy in a book by Joe DiMaggio to the effect that if you stay in Class C or D baseball for more than one year, you should quit, a sentiment that had outraged him forty years ago and was still bothering him at the time he was writing the essay, which concludes:

DiMaggio was wrong. I know that now, over forty years after I read that sentence. Or, because I was a boy whose hope was to be a different boy with a new body growing tall and fast and graceful and strong, a boy who one morning would wake, by some miracle of desire, in motion on the path to the garden, I gave DiMaggio too much credence; and his sentence lost, for me, all proportion, and insidiously became a heresy. Which I am renouncing now, as I see Billy Joe Barrett on the night when his whole body and his whole mind and his whole heart were for one moment in absolute harmony with a speeding baseball and he hit it harder and farther than he could at any other moment in his life. We never saw that ball start its descent, its downward arc toward earth. For me, it never has. It is rising white over the lights high above the right field fence, a bright and vanishing sphere of human possibility soaring into the darkness beyond our vision.