There are those writers that you simply cannot shake. As if you were bitten. Your brain might tell you to be merciful and lay off, but you go on, reading until the wee hours because the world these writers have created is just too powerful a drug, a place you do not want to trade for the real world. Know the feeling, right? It’s the power of words – the slow simmering words that sputter and fizz, and the quick ones, the ones that spark as they strike, as if they had been wrought on an angry anvil. They chase you, hound you. The words flail your brain until you either collapse or get to that last, merciful page.
Andre Dubus (père) was such a writer. He was not a prolific writer – short stories mostly, but he was a master at those. His style strikes a balance between rough-and-tumble dialogue and lyrical description, all the while cutting through the tortured flesh of his characters with surgical precision: “he heard her light feet in the hall, and he lay on the bed and watched her enter the room and cross it in the dark, and it was worth the fear.”
The writer of short stories faces a dilemma novelists do not: it is not easy to bring characters to live and let go of them almost instantaneously again in five, ten, or twenty pages. Lesser writers need that space just to set up the easel and stretch the canvas. Dubus, by contrast, throws paint against the wall: “The Jackmans’ marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days, they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying,” The Winter Father starts. Twenty sparse pages later it ends: “He watched her face, rosy tan now, lightly freckled; her small scar was already lower. Holding her hand, he reached over for David’s, and closed his eyes against the sun. His legs touched theirs. After a while he heard them sleeping. Then he slept.”
In the twenty pages this story takes up, we witness the pain of a flawed husband – an adulterer and drunk who desperately yearns to be a good father, to the point of wanting to grow a umbilical cord that would attach him to his children. He also becomes painfully aware that, after his divorce, his attachment to a woman is no longer centered in the physical realm now that “he and Norma had hurt each often deeply, and their bodies had absorbed the pain.” By the time the story ends, the reader has been taken from a disastrous divorce to an acceptance of reality, and of finding hope. Lyrical yet precise, Dubus wields the artists’ brush as if it were a scalpel. It is as if light had been breathed into these stories, mercifully dotted between the lines that tell of damaged people, lonely and rudderless, or lost in religious fanaticism, and desperately seeking to love and be loved. The mystery of these stories is that the characters do not find grace – grace finds them. It comes as they look down at their unloved bodies while taking a shower, or while they hear a child tell them “I wish it were summer forever.” The presence of grace is not surprising perhaps, given that Dubus was raised a Catholic, and one raised in the South – not coincidentally he has often been compared to fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor, in whose stories violence is an unavoidable antechamber to grace. In Dubus’s Voices From the Moon, Brenda finds this as she “listened to the silence of the room, and their smoking and swallowing and quiet breath, and she felt held by tranquility and shared solitude.”
“I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live,” Dubus once wrote. And reading him is like floating inside a person’s head – an experience I have had while reading other masters of the short story such as Anaïs Nin and Clarice Lispector. The sentences are strung together as if part of a musical movement, cavatinas wholly played in legato, and brought to a sudden end by a cadence that resolves any lingering doubt about the immense truth that has been revealed to the characters: that life is worth living, even for those who have been damaged and have damaged others. That there is love, but that loving might be more terrifying a prospect than being loved. One of the characters in Voices From the Moon says: “When I’m alone at night I look out my window and it comes to me: we don’t need to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.”
If ever there was a writer who loved his characters, it was Andre Dubus.