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.

1 comment:

Guilherme said...

I found this because I'm a huge Gordimer fan as well (your post just fell on my inbox) and I wanna thank you. Thank you very much.