Allegheny Front is a severe book. It’s a book that doesn’t trouble itself to protect the reader. “An animal has just enough brains to cure its own hide,” muses a man who is pages away from having just enough brains to see his own hide opened by a shotgun blast. In this collection of stories, his second book after the novel Honey from the Lion, Matthew Neill Null gives us a near-journalistic depiction of the violence men have wrought on nature and on themselves. But Null is shifty, prone to sliding into a different kind of honesty, a shelter-in-the-storm tenderness made all the more seductive due to its relative scarcity in the collection. Null is from West Virginia, and most of the literary press surrounding Null’s work lays the West Virginia on pretty thick — this interview is no exception. The insistence on the West Virginia narrative is not without good reason, though; Null is in possession of a ranging, encyclopedic knowledge of the Mountain State that is every bit as deep as it is wide. Over the course of a few emails, I had the pleasure of speaking with Null about a variety of topics from the efficacy of spoken stories to the forgotten work of Wendy Brenner.
The Millions: West Virginia is all over your work. In Lydia Millet’s introduction to this collection, she admits to knowing “almost as little of hardscrabble country life in West Virginia as it’s possible to know.” I know about the Wild and Wonderful Whites and prescription pills. I’ve heard the lazy, ridiculous incest jokes since I was a kid. I suspect most of your readers will be bringing a similar patchwork of misinformation regarding West Virginia to the table — do you see Allegheny Front and Honey from the Lion as an attempt to complicate — or at least augment — this bizarrely pervasive cultural perception in any way?
Matthew Neill Null: There are so many different people in a place like West Virginia, but we bear down on the most lurid aspects. The pill-eaters certainly exist — some are my pals! — but this vision leaves out the county surveyor, the deacon, the forester, the nurse raising kids on her own. But the world has certain expectations, and you’ll never go broke on stereotype. Writers like Daniel Woodrell have parleyed this into good, long careers. I think of it as meth-lab trailer porn.
I give a fuller spectrum of life because that is my experience of the place; my family has lived there for generations, since a time before the United States existed. My mom, who came from a modest background to say the least (her toy was an empty guitar case, and the house had no indoor plumbing), went to nursing school and climbed the ladder. My dad was a lawyer, from a family that has risen and fallen and risen again. One grandfather was a union pipefitter, the other a mechanic for Columbia Gas — though his father had been a state senator. I was blessed because we had friends from the entire expanse. It was a small place. Everyone was necessary. This is rare, I now know. We are stratified on the level of class. You walk into a party and find out everyone went to Bard together.
TM: In an interview with American Short Fiction, you bring up Breece Pancake as being generally accepted as the best writer to have come out of West Virginia. You go on to say that with Allegheny Front you wanted to “do something different, because if you’re a writer from West Virginia, particularly a white male, you’ll be compared to [Pancake].” It’s strange to imagine writing in the shadow of a 26-year-old man who died some 30-plus years ago whose name still might not ring a bell with many readers. Is this indicative of a shortage of West Virginia literature in general? Or is it just not getting the attention it deserves? Are there West Virginia writers we are woefully unaware of?
MNN: Oh man, I’m not the best person to ask. I’ve consciously avoided writers from my territory, because I wanted to engage the place totally, with my own language, own vision. I’m sure there are woefully overlooked writers of skill, as there are everywhere. My favorite West Virginia books are Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips and Lord of Misrule by my pal Jaimy Gordon, as well as Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. 1, with its long section on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster.
If people have encountered any writing from West Virginia, it’s likely The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which has had a cult revival, thanks to many champions such as John Casey, Andre Dubus III, and Kurt Vonnegut. In my grad program, people were obsessed with it.
Pancake killed himself at 26 in a bizarre episode, so his slender oeuvre is frozen like a fly in amber. Certainly the book of a troubled young man, confused, hurt, haunted by the land and history and class, still coming to terms with women and rejection. I wanted a more expansive world. We prize the human perspective too much. I mean my book to be a corrective to a certain understandable chauvinism.
TM: In “The Slow Lean of Time,” one of the characters dies and another is reassured by the fact that the drowned man “would live on on their tongues, not forever, but for a while, the nearest thing to forever.” Your stories often flirt with this collision of past and future, of old ways which eventually must submit to new. In “The Second District,” one of the hunters (who, rather primitively, has just used a dog to cave a bear) is prideful of owning “the first phone I encountered that could take pictures.” My question is this: why are these “stories that live on the tongue” still so vital when we live in a world where everyone has a phone that takes a picture?
MNN: If you look at social media, you see this leveling of American culture. Everyone has the same photo of the same beach, the same blue water, same wedding party, same slang, same songs, same movies. We have one lingua franca. We curate ourselves for mass consumption. But real speech, in the moment, in groups of two or three, tears at the veil. What we say that is not recorded. Drunken confession. Botched jokes. The rejected advance. Campfire at a deer camp. The novel as village gossip. The writer must rescue the whispered and the regrettable. I’m from a place totally shaped by talk, by verbal facility. All that silence, space, and privation gave people that gift, like the Irish, like Southerners. It was our currency, in lieu of any other. If you went to buy cigarettes, you weren’t getting out of there without a 20-minute conversation with the cashier and a couple sheep jokes.
The uneasy relationship between a past and an uncertain future is the major pivot of my work. It is impossible to shear my family’s identity from the West Virginia landscape. But I came of age at a time that was hyper-conscious of the fact that the place was dying. Free land brought us; we were broken on the rock of global capitalism. My world is gone, but we lived rich, particular lives there.
The fiction I’m writing now has a new focus: how to live in a world where there is no future. I find myself going back to beloved writers from Eastern Europe under communist regimes: Tadeusz Konwicki, György Konrád, Danilo Kiš. In absence of hope, their gaze is forced backwards. This may be a dead road, but I’m looking for a hint.
TM: I have to ask about the dedication. Your first book, Honey from the Lion, was dedicated, “For the land and the people.” The dedication in this book, however, reads, “For the animals.” At one point during my reading, I joked with myself that I might reread the collection to tally up how many gruesome (or at least very fully realized) animal deaths I came across. Animals — human and otherwise — are not treated particularly well in this collection that dedicates itself to them. What gives?
MNN: Interactions between humans and animals fascinate me. People in West Virginia live close to the bone — I hunted and fished for the table, like most. But if you look at the greatest swath of contemporary America, people encounter animals bloodlessly shrink-wrapped in the grocery aisle, or they keep pets and fetishize them. (I say this as a dog-lover. You take a young thing from its natural mother, inflict Stockholm Syndrome on it, and convince yourself that this is true love.) So I wanted interactions that are not filtered through sentiment or the factory slaughter-house. Force the issue. As Joy Williams says, “Good writing never soothes or comforts.” Look hard at the brutality people inflict on the landscape, the animals, and one another.
I’m from a place with a thin population. Animals filled out my world. In bed at night, I would wonder what the deer were doing up on the ridge. How the trout lived under the ice. So it was important for me to have a story like “Natural Resources” that is partly told from the perspective of animals. For me, the land, humans, and other forms of life are equally balanced; my work explores what happens when the balance is nudged, be it by capriciousness, bureaucracy, or extractive industry.
The poet Rebecca Gayle Howell is from eastern Kentucky, from a farm family, so we became fast friends. In her collection Render / An Apocalypse, she has poems like, “How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to Kill a Hen.” We’ve both noticed that, at our readings, no one objects to the violence that people do to each other, or that people do to the landscape, but sometimes a person will flip over the death of an animal. I’m not sure what this means. I’m still thinking on it. Perhaps because we project an innocence upon animals — they cannot speak, like very young children. But then, I’ve seen a mink kill a hen and not bother to eat it. It killed for play or for spite.
When I was rattling around for my novel, sometimes I would read a passage set on this howling winter mountainside — a lion attacks a team of horses, a teamster is mortally hurt, a horse has its foot sheared off when a log pins it against a stump. I worried to Rebecca about that, and she said, “You must get comfortable with discomfort.” With inflicting discomfort. That’s the difference between art and wallpaper.
TM: “Unsentimental” is a word I’ve seen stamped all over reviews of your work, usually always intended as complimentary; for whatever reason, “sentiment” has become a pejorative. That said, one of the stories from this collection, “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River,” elicited more of an emotional response from me than anything I’ve read recently. I think perhaps my reaction had something to do with the relative lack of obviously emotional points of reference in your work — a sort of supply/demand relationship. Is this a balance you’re conscious of striking or is it something that happens on its own?
MNN: In “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River,” I wanted to summon that sharp, bone-deep desire most of us feel toward someone when we’re young — it’s so immediate and annihilating there’s no way to resist. Well, okay, we feel it when we’re older, too, but if fate has blessed us with wisdom, we manage it better. (I’ve not been blessed.)
My tendency is to withhold emotion for as long as possible, then release it at certain, charged moments. I noticed this early on as a symptom of my writing, then began to use it more consciously as a tactic. That said, now that I’ve written two books, I want to tear down my practice and find a new syntax. I’m a couple hundred pages into a novel, part of which follows the dissolution of a long and disastrous marriage, so the exploration of the characters’ interior emotional landscape must be more a part of it. But even then, I don’t think I’m capable of going too far in the other direction. Sentimentality (not sentiment) is the enemy and the destroyer. Evan S. Connell is impressive in Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. A master of restraint. Even if the characters cannot articulate it to themselves, you always know what they feel. Connell is the forgotten American stylist of the 20th century. Such an elegant writer. His nonfiction works are just as startling, if not more so.
TM: You’re something of a compendium of “writers I should have heard of by now.” Who else should I be embarrassed not to know about?
MNN: Wendy Brenner is a fabulously talented short story and essay writer. She hits a sweet spot between Joy Williams and Padgett Powell, though she has a voice all her own, often more poignant. Begin with her essays for the Oxford American, specifically “Love and Death in the Cape Fear Serpentarium” and “Strange Beads,” then read her story collection Large Animals in Everyday Life.
Paula Nangle’s woefully-overlooked novel The Leper Compound follows a young girl into adulthood as Rhodesia is becoming Zimbabwe. A poet’s novel, in a way. I’ve met precisely one other human being who has read it.
Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy is a moving dream. I don’t even want to talk about it.
Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard is a prison novel, written while the author was incarcerated in San Quentin. But this isn’t the rough diamond you expect from prison lit. This novel is technically flawless. His memoir False Starts is out-of-print, once again proving the world is unjust.
TM: You’ve mentioned a world where there is no future, Eastern European communist regimes, and intentionally inflicting discomfort — this “dissolution of a marriage” novel is shaping up to be a real hoot! I’m having a difficult time imagining your work taking place under a roof. Are we still in West Virginia? Can you spill the beans?
MNN: In The Rumpus, the reviewer Micah Stack actually counted up what percentage of Allegheny Front takes place inside — he said it was less than two percent! I love it.
I don’t want to lift the lid off the pot, but the next novel takes place in the early-1960s, mostly in West Virginia but with interludes elsewhere. It traces political corruption, the rise and fall of the Great Society, and the tension between Marxists and anti-communist liberals in the American labor movement. The story of rural life is thought to be incoherent. It is not. Global political forces shape the private lives and social crises of characters who live in distant, even isolated areas, seemingly far from the main stage of history and the centers of power, commerce, and media. Susan Howe displays this to great effect in My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-Mark.
TM: I noticed a conspicuous lack of mining throughout this collection. It’s almost always there, but you keep it out of the foreground. Was this a deliberate move to avoid another of those tired West Virginia tropes, or is that just one more of the ways in which the state has been misrepresented?
MNN: My friend Phyllis says that the quintessential West Virginia story features a laid-off coal miner whose wife has just left him. He broodily gets whiskey-drunk (okay, meth-addled if the story was written in the last decade), goes deer-hunting (preferably with his dead father’s rifle), and accidentally shoots his beloved hound dog. The trailer door slams. He is now truly and forever alone.
But more seriously, yes, I wanted it to be in the background, always there, pervasive but rarely noticed, dark clouds on the horizon. In my novel, in their difficult moments the male characters always think of going into the mines. “If my life doesn’t pan out, I can always do this.” They think of it wistfully, as one thinks of suicide.
In the 1999 Publishers Weekly review of House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III is compared to Russell Banks, Richard Ford, and “one of our most talented writers:” his father. Although reviews of Dubus III’s earlier books referenced his legendary namesake, the comparisons have begun to fade. At Kirkus, S. Kirk Walsh recently linked the men: both are “expert at exploring the psychological crevices of [their] characters and the gritty realism of their broken lives.” Walsh’s observations might soon become a critical antique. Each year distances father from son. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe praised Dirty Love, Dubus III’s 2013 collection of fiction, without mentioning his skilled elder. The publication of his 2011 memoir, Townie, has resulted in literary-genealogical displacement for Dubus III: by writing directly about his relationship with his father, he has become his own man on the page. As the son rises, the memory of the father might drift away. That would be a shame. His father’s story has never been given its proper due.
I spent the summers during graduate school working as a groundskeeper for The Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ, the world’s oldest existing guide dog school. I was a seasonal assistant, charged with helping keep the campus pristine for visits by rich donors. I set post-and-rail fences, pitchforked steaming mulch from the back of a dump truck, and weed-whacked rocky hills. I wore a painter’s suit to power-wash hair, urine, and feces caked into the grout of the kennels. Afterward, I stripped out of the black and gold spattered suit, and kneeled under the Gatorade cooler that sat on the bed of our pickup. I chugged the grainy, poorly mixed drink, kept cold by sloshing ice. I spread out in the grass and watched trainers lead blind students forward, golden retrievers leashed to hopeful hands. This was a place for people to gain independence by placing complete trust in others.
I had been introduced to the elder Dubus’s work as an undergraduate. Tom Bailey, my fiction professor at Susquehanna University, included an essay by Dubus in his book On Writing Short Stories. We read “The Fat Girl” and “The Winter Father” in class. I checked-out his Selected Stories and Meditations from a Movable Chair from the college library. Though it felt like a venial sin, I couldn’t help but underline passages in pencil. But I truly fell in love with Dubus’s writing during those hot afternoons in Morristown, especially when it was my turn to mow the wide fields that stretched to the treeline. I rode a Steiner tractor, one used to trim minor-league ballfields, and listened to Bad Company while cutting rows of light and dark. In the middle of the field, on breaks, I unstrapped my backpack from the seat and read Dubus. I often returned to his essay, “Digging.” At 17, weighing “one hundred and five pounds,” Dubus was sent to work by his “ruddy, broad-chested father.” Dubus didn’t want to go. His father, an ex-Marine who carried a .22 on his belt for cottonmouths encountered during his surveying work, had a message for the foreman: “make a man of him.”
Dubus describes pickaxing a trench in Lafayette., La. heat. Sunburned and weak, his mouth is dry. He swallows salt tablets “and drank and drank,” but later becomes sick and vomits. He does not tell the foreman; he does not want to tell his father. But his father learns, and takes young Dubus to lunch. He buys the boy a pith helmet for the sun. Dubus feels like a fool, but wore it all summer because “I did not want to hurt him.” He ends the essay by thanking his father for making him work “instead of taking me home to my mother and sister,” where it was comfortable, the air cooled by a fan.
Dubus knows his father “may have wanted to take me home. But he knew he must not, and he came tenderly to me.” He made his son a man by letting him know that weakness could be overcome. My own father is similarly muscled from his college football days, but carries a gentler side. He was more pleased about my free lunch at work: chicken stuffed with apples and cheddar cheese, sweet potatoes, and freshly baked cornbread, squared and buttered. I sat at the long cafeteria tables with my boots unlaced, joking with the other summer guys. The outside work was tough, but inside there were strawberry-printed tablecloths and shiny urns of coffee. Reading Dubus was like entering a rougher world of work, and a place where the love between father and son could be expressed in silence.
In contrast, Dubus’s fiction scratches and tears. His stories document the sexual and violent collisions between men and women. Manipulation, jealousy, and revenge: these fictive men are often terrible. They are shadows of the male archetypes chiseled by his similarly Catholic predecessor, Ernest Hemingway. Ray, the occasional first person narrator of “The Pretty Girl,” rapes his ex-wife, Polly. When the narrative leans toward her, Dubus trades first person for third person limited. She realizes that men “need mischief and will even pretend a twelve-ounce can of beer is wicked if that will make them feel collusive while drinking it.” Polly’s Catholic faith is her salve. She attends Mass weekly, but “did not receive communion because she had not been in the state of grace for a long time.” She had slept with another man during the final months of her marriage, and will not even seek the sacrament of confession; the preconciliar world of sexual sin hangs heavy. Dubus’s fiction sounds a warning: sins bring immediate and eternal consequences, especially when the transgressions are sweet.
I devoted a chapter in The Fine Delight, my book on contemporary Catholic literature, to the fiction and non-fiction of Dubus. As novelist and deacon Ron Hansen describes himself, Dubus was a “Vatican-II Catholic;” often critical of the institutional church’s hierarchy, but thoroughly Catholic. To read him otherwise is to ignore his moral and cultural center.
I quickly discovered that scholarship on Dubus is surprisingly scarce. Shorter examinations peaked in the 1980s and ’90s. Revue Delta, a French publication, released a special critical issue on Dubus in 1987. Xavier Review’s Fall 2010 issue is composed of essays on both Dubuses. His interviews have been collected twice; first in Leap of the Heart: Andre Dubus Talking (2003), and more recently in Conversations with Andre Dubus (2013), which spans interviews from 1967 to 1999. In “The Art of Reading Andre Dubus: We Don’t Have to Live Great Lives” from Poets & Writers, Joshua Bodwell documents the accolades collected during Dubus’s lifetime: “fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, as well as the PEN/Malamud Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and [was a finalist] for a National Book Critics Circle Award and [a runner-up for] a Pulitzer Prize.”
There is no shortage of appreciations from his contemporaries and students: Andre Dubus: Tributes (2001) includes a foreword from his son, and an afterword by Tobias Wolff. The appreciations extend to those who learned from reading his work. Here at The Millions, Sara Krasikov writes about “Reading Andre Dubus in Iowa:” his writing offers “a spiritual inquiry into being human that’s free of sanctimony.” At The Missouri Review blog, Michael Nye reflects on how Dubus is one of his writing “guides,” as well as one of his “foils:” “I now admire Dubus’s work rather than try to emulate it.” Dubus has also reached the screen. In 2009, Edward J. Delaney released a documentary, The Times Were Never So Bad: The Life of Andre Dubus. His story “Killings” was adapted into In the Bedroom (2001), and his novellas We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Adultery became We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004). The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin acquired Dubus’s collected papers in 2010. Included: 300 letters from Dubus to his mother that span 20 years, other personal and professional correspondence, logs of writing time, character sketches and story fragments and drafts, lecture notes, publication typescripts and galleys, novenas, pocket calendars, divorce papers, and more.
It would be incorrect to say that Dubus has exited the literary conversation, but there is one telling fact: Thomas Kennedy’s excellent book, Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction, published in 1988, remains the only full-length critical examination of Dubus’s work. He first met Dubus at a Vermont bar in 1984. Kennedy had just been paid $20 for his first published story, and asked Dubus if he wanted to help him drink away the double sawbuck. He soon realized that Dubus was the writer of a story that helped him “understand the difference between love and lust:” “If They Knew Yvonne.” Dubus, who explained in his essay “The Habit of Writing” that he would read story drafts into a tape recorder and then play them back during revision, mailed Kennedy five cassette tapes’ worth of thoughts on fiction and life. Kennedy used those recordings as the basis for his critical study.
To be certain, critical attention toward a writer is not the last word on one’s success or influence, but the dearth of criticism is inversely related to the plethora of appreciations. Dubus was out of place in his literary moment. His only novel, The Lieutenant, was published in 1967, the same year that John Barth read “The Literature of Exhaustion” at the University of Virginia, where he praised the aesthetics of Jorge Luis Borges. In contrast, Dubus “gave up” on reading William Gass, and had this to say about postmodernism: “It’s like raw oysters and fried brains; you can’t call a man an asshole for not liking it.” Kennedy explains the ideological rift: Dubus “thought of his characters as real people in a real world rather than fictional characters in a fictional world,” as in the work of Barth, George Saunders, and Robert Coover. Dubus even differs from John Cheever and Gordon Weaver, whose characters “exist in language.”
The two elements of Dubus’s work and life that stifle most critics are his form and function; short fiction and Catholicism, respectively. The Jesuit literary critic Patrick Samway knows how to deal with those topics, as did Vivian Gornick, whose 1990 essay “Tenderhearted Men: Lonesome, Sad and Blue” remains one of the best treatments of Dubus. When she writes that his “work describes with transparency a condition of life it seems, almost self-consciously, to resist making sense of,” she recognizes the almost rubber tendency of Dubus’s fiction. His characters are trapped in worlds timed by their immediate needs: “they drink, they smoke, they make love: without a stop.” Because “sexual love is entirely instrumental,” relationships fail again and again. Marriage falls into adultery, adultery into loneliness, and then the cycle repeats. His characters “remain devoted to the fantasy.” Gornick’s essay considers Dubus after examining Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, and she concludes that Dubus’s Catholicism helps create the most layered fiction: “damnation mesmerizes him.” For Carver and Ford, there is only the “hard-boiled self-protection” of men. Dubus shares Flannery O’Connor’s fear of God. His characters still sin, but they look over their shoulders, they go to confession, they weep for their souls. Jonathan Mahler’s otherwise sharp essay, “The Transformation of Andre Dubus,” falters on his Catholicism, wondering if his devotional moments in essays “can be alienating” to the “secular reader.” In his introduction to Dubus’s essay collection, Broken Vessels, fellow Catholic Tobias Wolff explains: “[For Dubus], the quotidian and the spiritual don’t exist on different planes, but infuse each other. His is an unapologetically sacramental vision of life in which ordinary things participate in the miraculous, the miraculous in ordinary things. He believes in God, and talks to Him, and doesn’t mince words.” This belief operated in the real, tangible world, where the sacred and profane coexist, as in the story “Sorrowful Mysteries,” where the main character’s girlfriend is introduced in such a manner: “She likes dancing, rhythm and blues, jazz, gin, beer, Pall Malls, peppery food, and passionate kissing, with no fondling. She receives Communion every morning, wears a gold Sacred Heart medal on a gold chain around her neck.” In his essays, Dubus explains that sacraments “soothe our passage” through life. His daily receipt of the Eucharist means “the taste of forgiveness and of love that affirmed, perhaps celebrated, my being alive, my being mortal.” God needed to be brought down to the real, dirty world. Without the “touch” of the Eucharist, “God is a monologue, an idea, a philosophy; he must touch and be touched, the tongue on flesh.”
The critical ink might have dried, but for working writers, Dubus remains a life so full, so large, and yet incomplete. At the 2013 AWP Conference in Boston, “The Literary Legacy of Andre Dubus” drew an appreciative crowd. Matthew Batt, who served on the panel along with Dubus III, Melanie Rae Thon, Bruce Machart, and Nancy Zafris, remembers the room being full of “radiance.” Even the audience “seemed to have been waiting ardently for an occasion to mourn, and testify, and, ultimately to celebrate Dubus and his legacy.” Such a gathering is an act of love, and love is Dubus’s locus. Batt considers that Dubus’s work “is a kind of litany of sorrow and hope, where we all know we don’t stand a chance in the long run, but that’s no reason not to love one another along the way.” Love makes for fiction that is sharp to the touch. We leave Dubus wounded, but fuller.
I recently sat with fiction writer Kevin Grauke in his office at LaSalle University, and looking at well-worn spines of Dubus’s books, we wondered why this master does not receive more critical appreciation. Grauke’s best guess is that Dubus’s fiction is “very exposition-heavy and dialogue-light…they read like core samples pulled from the depths of his protagonists.” “A Father’s Story” (pdf) is his favorite work: “its ending jars me loose from the world around me.” Published in the Spring 1983 issue of Black Warrior Review, collected in The Times Are Never So Bad (1983) and subsequently anthologized to the present, the story of Luke Ripley unfurls in methodical first person. Ripley is divorced, owns and boards horses, and tells the reader about his daily Catholic rituals for the first half of the story. This telling would lumber forward in the hands of lesser writers, but Dubus makes the prose confessional, and we later learn the reason Ripley needs forgiveness. His grown daughter, Jennifer, spent a night drinking with friends. She struck a man while driving home, and weeps to her father in the early morning. He drives his pickup to the scene and voices simultaneous prayers: that the man was alive, and, “if he were dead, they would not get Jennifer.” The man is dead, and Ripley chooses his daughter over morality, over even God. He disposes of the body, and this is what he tells God: “I would do it again. For when she knocked on my door, then called me, she woke what had flowed dormant in my blood since her birth, so that what rose from the bed was not a stable owner or a Catholic or any other Luke Ripley I had lived with for a long time, but the father of a girl.”
Thomas Kennedy notes that the spiritual evolution of Dubus’s characters “might be seen as a growth to this ‘weakness’ [of love], to the openness of heart that, in weighing love against principle, chooses the former, although without releasing the latter.” This is the “moral paradox of the contemporary Catholic portrayed by Dubus, the encompassment into a single tension of the heart of the law of the Old Testament and the love of the New.” “A Father’s Story” is often misread. As the father of twin daughters, I fully understand Luke Ripley’s decision. Dubus recognizes that sometimes we must act poorly, immorally, in order to love. I cannot think of another writer who forces me to question God.
John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Ann Beattie, Stephen King, Tim O’Brien, John Updike, Gail Godwin, Richard Yates, Jayne Anne Phillips, and E.L. Doctorow: a dream reading series. It happened on a sequence of Sundays in February and March 1987, at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square. The readings were followed by dinners: fundraising events for “a little-known writer of short stories who was struck by a car,” as described in AP coverage of the event. That little-known writer was Andre Dubus.
On July 23, 1986, on Route 93 in Massachusetts, a selfless act left Dubus paralyzed. From his essay “Lights of the Long Night:” “I do not remember leaving the ground my two legs stood on for the last instant in my life, then moving through the air, over the car’s hood and windshield and roof, and falling on its trunk.”
I spoke with the final reader in that series, Jayne Anne Phillips. She was my mentor; first from afar in Black Tickets — I would type “Stars” and “Sweethearts” until I understood her forward-leaning structure, how her stories always moved yet swirled — and later in the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. I asked her why she thought Dubus, who is so loved by practitioners of his craft, was not given his critical due: “So many writers are little known, or lost for a time, once they stop publishing. Someone needs to come along and ‘discover’ them, as Dawn Powell and Edith Pearlman were ‘discovered.’ Films help, but [Todd] Field could not have titled In The Bedroom by the title of Andre’s story (the title works so beautifully in the fiction), so only writers of a certain age even know, at this point, that the film is based on Andre’s story. And I do think ‘working class’ fiction is neglected, when there should be courses based on it. Andre’s books are in print. Those who can need to assign them for courses. As for literary radar, some of it is politics and (urban) connections, as in any other realm. But none of this can touch the work itself.”
On the man himself: “I actually can’t remember meeting Andre until after the accident, though I had been reading his stories for years. Andre was a battler, an ex-Marine, a man’s man (with all the good and bad the term implies). It was typical of him to stop on a snowy night in the dark to help, to respond to emergency. A car crash had just happened; Andre was in the road assisting one of the victims, a woman, when another driver, unable to stop, hit him. Andre told me he threw the woman out of the way; he saved her life, basically, and took the brunt of the impact. He never fully recovered, and faced years of medical struggle. At the time, I lived near Boston, and the news of the accident compelled all of us to try to help in the only way we really could. Andre grew up working class Catholic; he’d begun teaching after he started publishing but must have been between jobs, or he wasn’t permanently associated with a university that had decent medical insurance. Andre taught me never to talk to someone in a wheelchair from a standing position; it’s just ‘normal human civility,’ he told me, to kneel and be at their eye level. I knelt. ‘That’s better,’ he said. He was generous, he was a charmer, and he was hard on himself and everyone around him. One of his most beautiful books is Broken Vessels, in which he addresses the sudden transformation from able-bodied, confident, muscular brawler (in his past) to ‘broken’ physicality, in which the soul must shift to compensate for strength that won’t return. Andre was years into that process when he died. No battle is harder won.”
Her words bring me to Thon’s reflection in Boston: Dubus “spent his life as a writer and a man kneeling before the suffering of others, receiving pain as a gift, surrendering to the dark wonder of the imagination, daring to ask the most devastating questions.” Love will bring a man to his knees. What ultimately draws me to Dubus is a fear of myself. It is a fear that has no justification in my history: I have managed to avoid violence, certainly any coming from my own hands. But Dubus’s fiction taps into the preternatural worry that we can turn, in a moment, from a person we have prayed to become to something sharp and wrong. To read Dubus is to be possessed by art.
Early in Townie, Dubus III’s memoir, his father is represented as a legend. When father and son go for a run, Dubus is “waiting for me at the top [of the hill], running in place, his beard glistening in the dappled light.”
I never met Dubus. He died in 1999, when I was a senior in high school, and had not yet read a word of his work. That iconic snapshot of him at the top of the hill encapsulates my view of him, however skewed. We all remake our icons in our own images, and I have done the same to Andre Dubus. I feel younger than my years expressing such affinity, but it is also freeing to admit that he informs nearly each word I type. I return to “The Habit of Writing” often.
“I gestate: for months, often for years,” he begins. He writes ideas in notebooks, and never thinks about them, knowing “I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender.” He waits. The story “is growing in me.” And then the scenes are showed to him, and the “story is ready for me to receive it. Then I must write, with the most intense concentration I can muster.” That is writing. The humility needed to wait, and the confidence required to finally act. The romantic, inspired moments of fiction writing are corralled by the need for communication and control on the page. One cannot live without the other.
While reading Townie, I cringed when Dubus left his wife and four children for the affections of a college student. I had known about the separation, but I had revised Dubus in my mind. Dubus III was not yet a teenager. The fractured family moved often; Dubus III’s prose still rings with the pain from a missing father. The Wall Street Journal’s review of the memoir pulls no punches: “Dubus comes off as a pathological narcissist oblivious to the travails that threatened to devour his children.” Dubus III, in an interview with The New Yorker, responds: “I have to say, I’m a little haunted by how hard on my father some of the Townie reviews have been. Could he have done better? Yeah. But I’ve forgiven him.” Dubus and his characters pulse with the struggle of living in a Catholic worldview that condemns sin but not the sinner. The paradox makes for incredible writing, but in life the sins wound longer than the close of a book. Dubus’s son has forgiven him; my hope is that we will never forget him.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
In writing my first novel, Cutting Teeth, when I got to the first scene that demanded dramatized sex — action, sound, smell, taste, the works — I paused. The word that made me lift my fingers from the keyboard was “clitoris.” Was it okay to use this word? What would my fellow literary writers, my former teachers and classmates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop think of me? I laughed at my insecurity, although part of me loathed my hesitation. Of course it was okay. It’s just a body part, I told myself. I had the same reaction in the other sex scenes I wrote — most involved a man and a woman, one two women. Nipples. Cock. Dick. Balls. Even typing these words now gives me a shiver of fear, as if the literary gods will strike me dead, or brandish me with a scarlet S for writing not only bad sex, but any sex at all.
Today, sex is everywhere — on TV, our computers, even our phones. But in the last two years, since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling paperback of all time, the jaws of literary writers have dropped, their shock over the book’s success, despite its unliterary style, echoing over the Twitter-waves. Part of me wants to say I was one of them — if only to be included in their elite ranks — but I wasn’t that surprised. I haven’t forgotten the lusty attraction of my grandmother’s paperback romances, which, as a pre-teen, I had secreted away to read at night by flashlight.
Long before I thought of myself as a writer, I was a reader. I grew up in a house of few books — my father’s set of encyclopedias in his native Italian and a handful of history books left over from my mother’s college education. My mother has a Masters in Education, but she hasn’t read a book in decades. My father was hungry for knowledge, but struggled to read our middle school science and social studies textbooks, the basic English too much of a challenge.
As a child, books were a magical distraction from my anxiety — what, 20 years later would be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. At school, every real-life, real-time decision — who to befriend, who to avoid — carried an infinite possibility of catastrophe, but I was safe when living inside a book. The day came when it seemed as if I’d read every book in our small school library, and the librarian was at a loss for suggestions that were age-appropriate. This was the mid-1980s, years before the YA market exploded. I needed the imagined life books gave me — without them it seemed as if real life lost its luster.
I stole one of my grandmother’s Danielle Steel novels. I don’t remember the title, only the pearlescent cover’s gold-embossed cursive that promised diamonds, high heels, and Farah Fawcett-hair — a glimpse into a dramatic adult world. What I do remember are the sex scenes. I replaced the book the next week and stole off with another, and so on, until I had read all in my grandmother’s collection. Those books taught me so much — that you could have sex standing up or even underwater in a pool! Along with the sex came emotion. These men and women were brazenly sentimental, confessing passion, hatred, and envy, and that melodrama kept me glued to the page.
Once I entered college, I left my towers of commercial fiction paperbacks behind in my parents’ basement. I declared a major in English and became a convert of the literary readership. I read what my professors assigned, mostly novels by white men written over a century ago, where sex and emotion were abstractly implied in only the most metaphysical sense. When it was my turn to choose my literary electives, I picked Hawthorne, Melville, and Dostoyevsky over the “scribbling women writers” of the 19th century, who, one of my professors explained with more than a hint of disdain, were the equivalent of our modern-day Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins. I remember blushing. Could he tell that I had once feasted on those emotionally hyperbolic and overtly sexual scenes?
By the time I was accepted at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the furthest I’d ventured into American literature was the modernism of Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. For the first time, I read short fiction writers known for their “spare” prose style, like Raymond Carver, whose work my classmates praised as “quiet” and “restrained.” Now, emotion (and the rare sex scene) was conveyed delicately through mood and atmosphere. I felt a kind of reader’s depression. Where was the meaning? How far did I have to dig under the surface of the prose? It felt as if there was a hole in my reader’s heart. Not that I would have ever mentioned the “heart” in workshop, the most sentimental of symbols.
After a semester of workshops where we praised writers who wrote in “trim” prose, I was converted to an more refined literary camp, where subtlety trumped all, even emotion. The more subdued my own writing style became the more my classmates appreciated it in workshop. This was especially true of the male writers, who began to imply, through playful teasing, that I wrote “stories about women for women,” and that I was lucky, because, “maybe someday Oprah will pick you for her book club.” This was the same year Jonathan Franzen was touring the country and publicly mocking the Oprah Book Club sticker on book jacket of The Corrections.
I feared my male classmates were right. Was I destined to become a commercial writer who was, gasp, popular? With a misdirected motivation that thrives with youth, fueled by my fear of rejection, I committed myself to toning down the emotion in my writing. My model was Jayne Anne Phillips’s story collection, Black Tickets, published in 1979 soon after Phillips’s own turn as a young woman writer at Iowa. I was determined to make my stories just as tight, lean, and fucked-up. I wrote a few sex scenes — spare in style and violent in content — and the “risks” I took in writing about sex were applauded in class.
Looking back now, re-reading those scenes, I see they are just shadows of real characters feeling vague emotion. Instead a gulf separates the reader from the character’s experience. I confess that I felt very little when I wrote those scenes; I was merely copying the writers I thought I was supposed to admire. I was removed from the characters even when writing semi-autobiographically. They were damaged young girls I used to impress my teachers and classmates. I remember typing the final line of a story — one that would earn me a coveted fellowship — And she will point to her hand, freed from the bandage, and say, Oh this? It’s nothing.
I asked myself, shouldn’t she, the girl in my story, be feeling more? Shouldn’t I be feeling more?
I did, once during my time at Iowa, write a story that risked unrestrained sex and emotion — about a schoolgirl in love with a young priest. The priest reciprocated with flirtation. I was 22 years old. I knew little of the complexities of sex and relationships. I was merely practicing them on the page. The story was told very close to the young girl’s consciousness so that her thoughts and feelings acted as a kind of voice, and when she reacted in scene, the emotion was anything but subtle.
As my aging Irish-Catholic workshop instructor spent the majority of that class deploring the way I had “corrupted the language,” I couldn’t tell if he was more offended by my technique or the blasphemy of a girl in an erotic relationship with a man of the cloth. When my instructor asked the class if my story would have a snowball in hell’s chance of being published in The New Yorker (his gold standard), I knew it was the melodrama that offended him most. I abandoned that story, and it was years before I wrote another scene that was concretely sexual or emotional.
Was I alone in this fear of writing about sex and the emotion of intimacy? I asked my friends and students. Unsurprisingly, those who write fiction marketed as genre, whether historical, women’s fiction, romance, or thrillers, feel more comfortable writing sex. Those published in erotica anthologies revel in their confidently drawn sex scenes. Most of these writers are women and write for a mostly female audience.
When I asked literary writers about their experience writing sex, their responses ranged from, “I am terrified of sex scenes!” to “I fear the reader will think I’m a pervert, or terrifically immature, or both.” Why do so many literary writers fear writing about sex? Why do we add to the collective anxiety by celebrating The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex Award” — the annual public humiliation and literary stoning of one published writer?
In my experience as both a writer and a teacher, this fear of writing about sex is tied to the fear of sentimentality that takes root in a writer’s formative years. Writing instructors chastise writers in class — a setting that can feel quite public — when the writer risks sentiment, which a naïve writer might mistake for emotion. Writers accrue a kind of scar tissue, blocking their ability and their confidence to imply emotion, inevitably leading to a clouding of meaning in their work.
Most of the writers who felt comfortable writing about sex did not attend MFA programs, where “show don’t tell” is a mantra, another way of saying “do not venture into sentimentality.” This is an essential lesson for beginning writers, but I wonder if writing instructors, myself included, preach against sentimentality so often that it creates anxiety in our students. The writer must be the first reader to feel the emotional intention of the story. The heart of the story (there’s that heart again) won’t exist if the writer never takes that leap of faith.
Ask a roomful of literary critics about sex in fiction and they will champion James Salter — a captain of the “spare” style team. The New York Times called Salter’s novel, A Sport and a Pastime, “a tour de force in erotic realism.” The novel is set in 1950s France and the unnamed narrator is an exceptionally passive observer of an affair between Phillip, a bourgeois American, and Anne-Marie, a young French woman:
Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begin to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath — it is almost a sigh — leaves her. Her white throat appears.
I imagine Salter intentionally stripping every hint of emotion from the prose, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality. London’s The Times praised the novel, “Just to read it makes you feel alive.” I felt the very opposite. I felt hollow. There was little that felt alive or realistically erotic about watching Philip and Anne-Marie as if from across a vast ocean. Is writing about sex with such distance less of a risk, when compared to a writer who places him or herself inside the character’s every kiss, stroke, and thrust, acting as the pioneer in whose footsteps the reader will follow?
Intention is one excuse literary readers, including myself, use to defend flaws in our own work and in that of our predecessors, but there is a big difference between what a writer intends the reader to think and feel, and the reader’s actual experience. Salter’s novel was revolutionary for its eroticism when published in 1967, but why are today’s literary writers looking to a novel so dated in its portrayal of sex? Is it because the ambiguous intimacy allows them to further avoid addressing the challenges of writing sex?
Sarah Waters, award-winning and best-selling novelist, is well known in her native England, but I have often wondered why she isn’t more popular among American literary readers. There are several possible factors: she is a woman who often writes historical fiction, she is a lesbian, and most of her characters are women. But there is nothing unliterary about Waters’s technique.
Adrian Van Young, author of the story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything, and one of the few male literary writers or readers I know who has read Waters, has this to say: “Waters seldom writes sex that isn’t intrinsically connected to emotion, and together they form an almost elemental force in her fiction.” It is this intrinsic connection between emotion and sex, whether tender, violent, or awkward, that gives Waters’s sex scenes a sense of being earned, necessary to the story.
Waters’s most recent novel, The Little Stranger, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is set in the 1940s in a dilapidated English mansion. The novel is told from the perspective of country doctor Faraday, who forms an unusual friendship with Caroline Ayres, the spinster daughter of the estate. Like Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, the storytelling relies on an unreliable narrator, yet in Waters’s The Little Stranger, the reader is a participant in the erotic mystery, not just a voyeur.
…my thumb slid just beyond the inner edge of (her coat), and met the start of the swell of her breast. I thought she flinched, or shivered, as the thumb moved lightly over her gown. Again I heard the movement of her tongue inside her mouth, the parting of her lips, an indrawn breath.
The writing is subtle in emotion and tone, but Waters builds an empathic bridge between her reader and both the characters through Dr. Faraday’s imagination, particularly in the way that he wonders what Caroline is feeling. In A Sport and a Pastime, Salter intentionally levels that bridge. Is it a coincidence that so many sex scenes written by women for women seem to focus on the characters’ feelings? I think not.
Ten years have passed since I left Iowa, and in that time I wrote a novel that didn’t sell, took a break from writing, and founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. It was the 2,000 Sackett writers who gave me the confidence to return to writing, ultimately resulting in a novel that I am proud of, that has its sexy moments, and is to be published by St. Martin’s Press in the spring of 2014.
I tell MFA-bound students that a graduate program is a great place to learn craft and to live and party among writers, but not always the easiest place to write. It took me years of post-MFA retrospection to sort through the assumptions I’d adopted on what makes writing good or bad. My voice has risen from the ashes and it is no restrained peep, but somewhere between a croon and a ballad. There are the withholders like Salter and Carver, and there are the revealers, my own literary camp. I’ve accepted this after years of resistance. Salter is like that aloof James Dean-esque boy, the one the girls go crazy for because he lives in his own world. He is enigmatic. I desired those boys in my youth, but I’m all grown up now and don’t have the patience for those unreadable types.
With great relief, I’ve discovered that I am pretty good at writing sex. My readers are all (but for my husband) literary women writers and they concur. Even my mother-in-law, reacting to a particularly steamy sex scene in my novel, said, “Well, how about that? That sex scene was something!”
As in most things literary, the solution to writing “good” sex, and protecting yourself (fingers crossed) from The Literary Review’s “award,” is to think of the reader. Just as there is an infinite variety of “good sex” — the factors dependent on those partaking — there are also an infinite variety of writers, each with his or her ideal reader. Me, I want my literary sex real — fluids and all.
Image Credit: Flickr/yaaaay
As we noted yesterday, Carolyn Kellogg has an interesting piece up at Papercuts about Bruce Springsteen and Walker Percy. Carolyn expresses some surprise at finding out that the Boss is an avid reader. To us die-hard fans, however, evidence of Bruce’s bookish leanings is legible as far back as the late ’70s. There’s the song title nicked from Flannery O’Connor (“A Good Man is Hard to Find,” from Tracks); the in-concert plug for Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life (on Live 1975-1985); the East of Eden-ish “Highway Patrolman” (from Nebraska); and the long quotation from The Grapes of Wrath in the title track of The Ghost of Tom Joad.For those interested in what else Bruce has been reading, a big photo spread of Springsteen’s “writing room” in the current issue of Rolling Stone offers a tantalizing glimpse (Ed. – The photo they’ve posted is much smaller than the one in the magazine, frustrating attempts at further investigation online). I found myself distracted from the accompanying article, perusing the bookshelves instead, as I tend to do involuntarily when I’m invited into the house of an acquaintance for the first time. In addition to the prerequisites of any writing room – Roget’s Thesaurus; The Holy Bible; Bob Dylan’s Lyrics – the Springsteen shelves boast an eclectic mix of literary fiction and books on history and music. Here’s what I could glean from the spines.Black Tickets, by Jayne Anne PhillipsWhite Noise, by Don DeLilloAmerican Pastoral, by Philip RothThe Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell Cold New World , by William FinneganCountry: The Music and the MusiciansAmerican Moderns, by Christine StansellReal Boys, by William PollackAt the Center of the Storm, by George TenetWhen We Were Good, by Robert S. CantwellJohn Wayne’s America, by Garry WillsThe Elegant Universe, by Brian GreeneThe Search for God at Harvard, by Ari L. GoldmanFeel Like Going Home, by Peter GuralnickDark Witness, by Ralph WileyGo Cat Go, by Craig MorrisonNew Americans, by Al SantoliOrlando, by Virginia WoolfCurrently, Bruce appears to be reading Fallen Founder, a biography of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg. And he is evidently something of a fan-boy himself; prominently displayed on his coffee table is a book called Greetings from E Street.