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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Selected Stories, Dancing After Hours, Meditations from a Movable Chair, Broken Vessels by Andre Dubus

This story begins two or three years ago, when Helen Garner sent me a postcard saying that she had discovered a powerful, unknown to her, short story writer, an American; she was sure he was a Catholic and she thought I might like him too. From her handwriting I wasn't quite sure of his name but I went into town and tried to find him in the shops; but I failed to find him; and then I forgot about him.

Then, at the beginning of this year, Online Catholics editor Kate Mannix told me that Brian Doyle had brought out a collection, Best Catholic Writing 2004, which he hoped to make an annual. Brian Doyle is a fine exponent of that winning American genre of writing that is whimsical, open to God and sturdily sentimental without gushing, a genre that most Australian writers, even we Celts, are too hardbitten to attempt. As well, he edits the best university magazine I've ever seen, Portland Magazine, so his skills as an editor are seasoned ones. I went straight into town and ordered the book, meaning to write about it in Books Etcetera, but it took months to arrive here; by the time it came, (Chicago: Loyola Press, $26.95), it was too late for this column. Not to worry, I thought, I'll get the 2005 edition earlier and give it a run - it's the sort of book Online Catholics subscribers would enjoy.

Reading Brian Doyle's introduction, I came across a list of the writers who had influenced him (many of them part of my own CV), and he ended with this drum roll:-

"Most of all, for me, the late Andre Dubus, whose fame as a writer had come from his haunted and piercing short stories but whose greatness as a writer of love and grace and duress and miracles and sadness and salvation flowered late in two collections of extraordinary essays about sacrament immanent in every moment; and for your homework today I assign you Andre's Meditations from a Movable Chair, which I say is the greatest collection of Catholic essays since Flannery O'Connor stopped writing letters to her friends. I believe that one of the great voices in Catholic history died in 1999, and it says everything about the sweet wild confusing depth of American Catholicism that its finest essayist was sweet, rude, devout, grouchy, a former Marine captain, a pacifist, and a father of six children."

Ah, so that's how you spell his name: Andre Dubus. And then I noticed that Doyle's 2004 collection was dedicated to him. So, back into town... where I found at Kinokuniya (now the best bookshop in Sydney), a whole shelf of his stories; and bought Selected Stories (Vintage Books, $24.23) and Dancing After Hours (Vintage Books, $19.34), ordering as well Meditations from a Movable Chair (Picador, $24.99) and Broken Vessels, his first book of essays, now out of print. (Allow me to add, because otherwise I will receive needless advice to the contrary, that I do not buy books from internet warehouses but from bookshops because I think bookshops are an integral part of civilization, worth helping to preserve; and I support bookshops because they support me by stocking my own books.)

Meeting Andre Dubus thus has been a major experience of the year 2005 for me. (Thank you, Brian Doyle.) So what did I learn about Andre Dubus? Well, for a start, all those contradictory tropes that Brian Doyle attached to his name are right on the money. A Louisiana boy, he grew up at the crossroads of Creole and Cajun and Catholic cultures and he was a shy small boy at a Christian Brothers school, a target for bullies. Then he went into the Marines and afterwards no one bullied him again. For years he carried a gun, after his sister was raped on her front lawn, carried a gun to protect the women he was with, especially when he went to Boston - New York City was too raw for his tastes. Coming out of the Marines, he decided to try to be a writer; but by then he was married, with children coming fast, four of them until he and his wife made up their minds to ignore the church's ban on contraception. In all, there would be six children and three wives. Despite poverty, he refused publishers' suggestions that he write novels; and he turned his back on the big payers, like Penthouse (all that cunnilingus) and The New Yorker (ads for the seriously rich end of society), appearing in odd corners of the literary landscape and teaching others how to write. What else did I learn about him? He was a daily Massgoer for whom Holy Communion gave the whole day a radiance; and he spent the earliest hour of his day speaking, sometimes quite crankily, to God. He had a companionable, but not servile, attitude to his local priests and he admired Catholics like Dorothy Day.

Also he was a runner, through the woods or along the roads near his home. But one day the running stopped. Early one morning in 1986, aged 49, he was driving back from Boston when he saw a car stopped in the middle of the road, obviously in some sort of trouble. Strung to action, the former Marine got out of his car and walked back to the people on the road, who turned out to be a Puerto Rican man and his sister: Senor, por favor, please help, no hablo Ingles. Of course. He was shepherding them off the road when another car sped over the hill, struck the Puerto Rican man, killing him, and hurling Dubus, who had swept the woman to safety, across the bonnet of the car. Then came two months in hospital and ten operations, so that he lost his left leg and saw out the rest of his life from a wheelchair. Knowing his poverty, other writers held reading benefits for him; their names, which include John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, EL Doctorow, John Irving and Richard Yates, are testimonies to his standing in the world of American letters.

No more running now. And, a cynic might add, a new topic for his pen. Of course he wrote about it, not only in the essays but also in his stories, where you notice the inclusion of leg-damaged and immobile characters. But let me say this: in his essays, while he explores the pain and confusion and anger and losses of his now diminished condition, he never gripes about the unfairness of it. He calls himself a cripple, because that is what he is, but there is no self-pity in the name. There is no whining in these essays, as Tobias Wolff says in an introduction to Broken Vessels.

So what about the stories? A Father's Story, the last in his Selected Stories, is typical. Divorced, a man in his middle years lives alone and runs a riding school and stables. His closest friend seems to be the local priest, who had supported him through the bad times after the divorce and with whom he shares a cigarette in the sacristy after morning Mass. The children have all grown up, married and moved away, the only one of them to visit regularly being the youngest daughter, Jennifer, now a young woman. On one of her visits Jennifer goes for a night out with girlfriends and, coming home in her car, hits someone walking along the road. She rushes back to her father, who settles her down with whisky and listening, then goes out himself, retracing her path, to discover that she has indeed killed a young man. While she sleeps, he spends the night with opera and cigarettes. At dawn he gets into her car, drives to the church, where he pretends to have a blackout and runs the car into a tree, thereby disguising the dented mudguard with newer dents. He stays at church for Mass and Holy Communion but nor for confession. He knows he should call the police - and the priest would probably tell him to do that - but this is his daughter, whom he cannot imagine in prison... if it had been one of his sons, it would have been a different matter, he knows. Aware that he is guilty of depriving the parents of the killed boy their full meed of grieving, for they will never know the name of his killer, he must bear the guilt of his sin as the price of his love for his daughter. It is an immense story of the tangled motivations and ambiguous moral choices real life, away from the textbooks, forces on us human beings; and as such it is a fair sample of Andre Dubus's stories.

I know something more about A Father's Story. He read it once to an audience of young women at an American university and when he had finished reading, the still air was broken by sobs as singly and together those college women thought of their own fathers and their own experience of loving and being loved, often unexpressed. Then they came up, one after the other, to say that he had got it right: 'My father would have done that,' they said. Of course he would, said Andre, so why don't you tell him how much you love him, tonight. There's a payphone in the hall; go out there now and ring him. And that they did, one by one, passing on the love awakened to speech by Andre's reading.

The Works:

  • Selected Stories
  • Meditations from a Movable Chair
  • Dancing After Hours
  • Broken Vessels


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