“Andre Dubus’s literary superpower is to hit upon that one thing about a character that makes him him, or her her. And in so doing, with subtle, clever details—breadcrumbs on the trail to the nucleus of a character—he makes a reader want to keep going, because she knows exactly who these people are and has to know what happens to them.” On the Selected Stories of Andre Dubus.
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
Alice Munro does not have an MFA degree. She comes from a time when few Americans, and even fewer Canadians, found it necessary or expedient to pursue graduate study in creative writing. Though Munro was not produced by the MFA culture, she has been embraced by it to an extent unparalleled by any other living writer. When I visited the MFA program where I eventually enrolled, I was only a minute or two into a conversation with a second-year student when he asked, “Do you love Alice Munro?” Before I could answer, he added, “Because everybody here really loves Alice Munro.” It was true. One professor diagrammed the craft of Munro’s stories on a wipe board, using a complex notation of cylinders and arrows I struggled to understand. In another workshop, each student was required to choose a story from Munro’s Selected Stories and introduce it to the class. (I picked “The Turkey Season” and was impressed by the easy, unforced rhythms of the dialogue, though I don’t remember noticing much else.) Last Thursday, when the Nobel Prize was announced, the euphoria among my writer friends and acquaintances was palpable. There seemed to be a common feeling that Munro was ours, a writer’s writer uniquely beloved by the workshop.
When I began teaching, I couldn’t miss the fact that excerpts from Munro’s stories were used to illustrate almost every principle of craft. In the textbook most commonly assigned in introductory fiction classes, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, she is cited in the sections on effective use of subtext in dialogue, on how to move over long spaces of time in summary, and on revision. No other writer — with the possible exception of Chekhov, to whom she is often compared — seems to have this universal applicability. It would be possible, one imagines, to read a Munro collection as certain people read the Bible, opening the book at random and sticking a pin down on the page. Surely you couldn’t fail to come up with a passage that would illuminate your own understanding of technique, and do it in a style that seemed both accessible and effortless. In those early years, I dutifully taught and studied Munro’s stories, but when I wanted to reread a story for the sheer pleasure of it, I went not to The Beggar Maid but to Junot Diaz’s Drown, or to Selected Stories of Andre Dubus. I appreciated Munro, I respected her, but — as we’ve all surely learned by our mid-twenties — that’s not the same as being in love.
We live in an era when North American readers are increasingly well-versed in the language of the writer’s craft. Book reviews in the New York Times and other major venues routinely focus in on questions of delineation of character and the construction of sentences. Tens of thousands of undergraduate students enroll in creative writing classes every semester, and the database maintained by Poets & Writers currently lists two hundred and three graduate programs offering the MFA degree. Studies of the institutionalization of creative writing by scholars like D.G. Myers and Mark McGurl claim that the examination of technique is a secondary function of a writing program whose real purpose is to coach students through the labor of self-expression, but the widespread fascination with the minutiae of Munro’s craft would seem to indicate otherwise. The joyful reaction to the news of Munro’s Nobel among American writers and readers of literary fiction has to have something to do with the fact that we understand, or think we understand, how she does what she does. One doesn’t have to look far for an analogy: I like listening to Gil Shaham play the violin, but I’d probably like it even better if I knew a fingerboard from a pegbox. Reading Munro, noticing an abrupt but somehow perfect ending to a scene, an Austenian moment of indirect discourse, we must be getting smarter even as we enjoy ourselves.
As a teacher, I went back again and again to her stories, gaining through rereading an appreciation of the subtler aspects of her craft. Joan Silber, author of As Long As It Takes: The Art of Time in Fiction, praises Munro for her use of what she calls “Switchback Time,” “a zigzag movement back and forth among time frames…us[ing] the shifts in an order that doesn’t give dominance to a particular time.” Often we move back and forth between the end and beginning of an affair, a marriage, a life, until the two narratives come to possess equal weight and interest. Here Munro transgresses what I teach to my classes as a rule — that the present time of a story must be more interesting and carry more weight than the flashbacks — but does it in a way that can be explained and discussed, perhaps even imitated by anyone who has the courage to try it. I kept on studying her stories, and trying to share their unique brilliance with my students, even after I came to suspect that the author herself might not entirely approve of my efforts to interpret and explain her methods. The story “Differently” opens with a scene of an unsuccessful lesson on the craft of fiction:
Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.
Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it. Georgia herself thought it was a fake. She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story. The instructor said that she expected too much, of herself and of the process, and that she was wearing him out.
Perhaps it is simplistic or wrong-headed of me to read this passage as Munro’s comment on the university study of creative writing. She would know better than anyone that a story must be a complete thing in itself, that one requiring an appendix has bigger problems than a lack of authenticity. And yet it is worth noting that she is not — like other writers beloved by the workshop; like Tim O’Brien, for instance, or Richard Ford — a staple of university reading series. She has never, as far as I have ever heard, taught in an MFA program as a visiting writer, or even flown in for a few days of readings and craft talks. Her use of what Silber calls Switchback Time could be seen as an infinitely more sophisticated version of Georgia’s appendix, an effort to put more into a short story than the form is supposed to be able to support. I suspect — though I may well be projecting — that Munro would find in the university-trained fiction writer’s obsession with craft in general and with her work in particular a kind of well-meaning naïveté, a dotty insistence on missing the point.
As I left my twenties and entered my second decade as a teacher of creative writing, I found that I could now answer my MFA classmate’s question in perfect sincerity: I loved Alice Munro. I loved her not because of Switchback Time or her ear-perfect dialogue, but because her stories had become part of my inner landscape. Like my favorite scenes in Austen and George Eliot, Cheever and Flannery O’Connor, these stories hold in retrospect the intensity of my own memories. If writing a poem is like living twice, reading Munro is like living over and over again, lifetime upon lifetime in the space of a single story. My deepened appreciation for her work may also have something to do with what I’ve experienced in what I think of in my non-literary life — marriage, motherhood, the loss of family and friends. I have an idea that she may be, like George Eliot, a writer better understood on the far side of thirty.
In the days since the announcement of her Nobel, as I walk around replaying scenes from Munro’s stories in my head, I’ve found that the passages that come back to me are not the teachable moments I’d point to in a class discussion, but snippets whose power and brilliance seems to elude my efforts at explication. The scene in “Save the Reaper” when a woman named Eve foolishly leads her young grandchildren into a nightmarishly strange house in an Ontario cornfield; or the climactic moment in “The Beggar Maid,” when Rose sees her ex-husband Patrick at an airport many years after their divorce and he greets her by making an ugly, hateful face. I could and did recite the final lines of that scene — Oh, Patrick could. Patrick could — but I couldn’t explain to anyone, least of all myself, why they lingered with me so powerfully. Those passages aren’t how I teach writing, but they’re why I wanted to be a writer, and a teacher, in the first place.
Years ago a friend of mine cautioned me to not to teach my classes like the Chris Farley Show, referencing the nineties-era SNL skit where Farley ineptly interviews artists that clearly impress him too much. Instead of asking Paul McCartney or Martin Scorcese questions about their careers, Farley summarizes important moments in their work and then tells them they were “pretty awesome.” Implicit in my friend’s advice was the idea that it was insufficient to simply praise a piece of writing for being unbelievably good. It wasn’t critical. It didn’t actually teach anybody anything. I believe he was right, for the most part, but when I think about the happiness that I and so many of my writer friends seemed to feel at the news of the Nobel, I wonder if what I need in my life is a little less craft and a little more Chris Farley. Instead of talking about how Munro does what she does, wouldn’t it feel good to just let the stories happen? Remember that one part in “The Albanian Virgin,” and “Runaway,” and “Friend of My Youth”? That was really great. That was pretty awesome.
This guest post comes to us from Sana Krasikov. Krasikov is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of the debut short story collection, One More Year, which the New York Times calls, “a sensitive book about the economics of relationships: how they can become subtle transactions by people trying to pull off the trick of occupying more than one place and more than one time.” Khaled Hosseini has declared her “a brave new writer.” Her stories have previously appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and Zoetrope.My first January in Iowa City, I rented a house from an elderly artist couple who were spending the winter in Spain. I’d been looking for a cheap place to live, and they needed someone to keep their house heated so its hundred-year-old pipes didn’t freeze up and burst. A few days after meeting with them, I moved into an antique, three-story Folk Victorian with a painting of a human-sized demonic cat in the entry hall. The house was a writer’s paradise – its wide windowsills were crowded with giant spider plants and birdcages. The rooms were divided with sliding wooden doors which disappeared inside the walls. Canvases of psychedelic dreamscapes lay piled in the corners. Upstairs, I found a studio that still smelled of turpentine, with a drafting table perfect for setting up a laptop. In the kitchen, cords of red Christmas lamps shaped like jalapeño peppers hung from the ceiling. The first few weeks, I awoke every morning to the light from the giant bay window, still not believing my luck. I invited friends and cooked dishes with herbs the artists had planted in their window-boxes. Then the first hail storm hit and the sewage pipe in the storage room froze and burst, flooding the whole basement. Because the house’s ancient heating system was also in the basement, it became impossible to warm the rooms without drawing up the smell of rot through the iron vents. In the end, I found myself relegated to a single room of my giant mansion — the kitchen, which I could heat by turning on the stove and opening the oven door. And so, I spent most of the winter at a round breakfast table with my back to an oven, reading. On the artists’ shelves, I had found the Selected Stories of Andre Dubus, whom I’d never read before. The first story I turned to was titled, “The Fat Girl.” “Her name was Louise,” it began. “Once when she was sixteen a boy kissed her at a barbecue; he was drunk and he jammed his tongue into her mouth and ran his hands up and down her hips. Her father kissed her often. He was thin and kind and she could see in his eyes when he looked at her the lights of love and pity.”The pleasure of discovering a new writer can quicken your senses. My feet were cold and my back was hot and I had never read anything like this. The prose was practically weightless but as direct as a lance. Here was Louise – a girl who couldn’t escape seeing herself as men saw her: the object of a boy’s careless, drunken lust and of her father’s love and pity. Between these two extremes, one already sensed the gaping chasm, the romantic love for which Louise secretly yearns and which she believes she’ll never have.I read on. Louise’s high school years are spent going on and off diets. “When she was out of the house,” Dubus writes, “she truly believed she was dieting; she forgot about the candy, as a man speaking into his office dictaphone may forget the lewd photographs hidden in an old she in his closet.” She chooses a girls’ school in Massachusetts for college and when her parents discuss it, “everyone so carefully avoided the word boys that sometimes the conversations seemed to be about nothing but boys.” When her roommate, Carrie, discovers Louise’s midnight snacking, she tells her in the dark that should eat chocolates in front of her, whenever she feels like it, and Louise, initially mortified that her “insular and destructive” vice has been exposed, finally agrees. The moment of intimacy between the two friends in the darkness of their dorm room is as poignant as any you’ll read in literature. When Carrie finds a boyfriend and Louise grows depressed, her friend decides to help. “I want you to be loved the way I love you, Louise,” she tells her, and begins cooking all of Louise’s meals on a small stove in their room, serving her black coffee and scrambled eggs every morning, and documenting her weight loss in a journal. Surrendering to her friend’s help, Louise begins to see the world in a new way. “The campus was pretty, on its lawns grew at least one of every tree native to New England, and in the warm morning sun Louise felt a new hope.” So complete is Dubus’ empathy for Louise that a reader senses that he loves her the way God might love mortals – for all the vices that cause them shame, and all the flaws they try to eradicate in themselves. But there is another side to her journey. From then on, Dubus tells us, “Louise entered a period of her life she would remember always, the way some people remember having endured poverty.” There’s a moment when as a reader you pause and discover that the author has brought you much farther into his vision than you imagined. Louise’s ritualistic relationship to food, her battles with her urges, her vowing to set herself along a more abstemious path are like the struggles of a person grappling with her faith, trying to be good in the face of being human. Dubus never resorts to the pseudo-medical language of “dysfunction” and “disorder,” never turns to the too familiar vocabulary of “recovery.” Instead, the territory he charts is a distinctly religious one. For Dubus, a lifelong Catholic, fiction was first and foremost a moral form. In an interview, he’d once said he didn’t know how somebody without a religious or philosophical background could exist in the world without despair. His isn’t the sort of writing you can compliment by calling it “impressive” in that it doesn’t try to impress on the readers its author’s own intelligence. It offers something better than that: a spiritual inquiry into being human that’s free of sanctimony. In one of Dubus’s most famous stories, “Killings,” Frank, the son of a small-town doctor and a music teacher comes home from college to spend the summer working on the boats of their fishing-village and falls in love with an older woman whose ex-husband eventually shoots him. When the local authorities declare the murder an accident, Frank’s father, Matt, decides to kill his son’s killer to spare his wife the pain of seeing the man walk free. He knows that what he does is both wrong and necessary. He carries out his plans quietly, while his wife Ruth sleeps. When he returns to their bedroom the next morning, Ruth is up, waiting for him. She asks simply, “Did you do it?”If there was ever a story that’s evidence to what the short story form can accomplish, “Killings” ought to be one. What novels can’t always make immediate, the compression intrinsic to the short story does. The intensity of reading a great story is a little bit, I think, like sitting with your back to an open stove in a cold kitchen, feeling its heat grow hotter against you as you sit still. It’s something almost physical, an act of intimacy between you and the writer’s words. Dubus reminds me of why I can’t bear to be in a room where thirty other people are reclining on folding chairs, listening to a writer read out loud from his work. When reading becomes a communal activity, it’s too tempting to treat prose as spectacle, to set people up for punchlines or to feel a need to deliver the kind of redemptive moment we’ve become so used to from watching TV and the movies.The impact of great fiction is delivered slowly and cumulatively. Of all the arts, fiction concerns itself the most not with what is visible, but what is invisible. It raises the question of who we are underneath the complex mess of our observable qualities: age, IQ, sex and social position. After Louise becomes skinny, she marries a young associate from her father’s firm, a man who takes her on foreign vacations and holds her hand on the plane, where she thinks herself “cunning,” as if the life she is living isn’t really hers. When she tries to recount for him her youth as a fat girl, he gets bored as though she were telling him about a childhood illness. Louise believes that if she can only “command the language” to tell the story of her inner life, her husband “would know and love all of her and she would feel complete.” When she begins to gain weight after the birth of their child, her husband treats her with uncomprehending contempt. In turn, she tests the limits of his frustration by getting bigger. Beneath their arguments, Dubus writes, “lay the question of who Richard was.” Her husband, Louise knows, can see her only as the slender girl he courted at the wheel of his boat. He cannot love her the way her friend did, and his efforts to help Louise do not approach the “compassion and determination and love,” that she remembers on Carrie’s face. And so, shedding her disguise as a skinny girl, Louise drives the wedge in further. It is often amusing for me to hear interviewers asking an author about his background or personal life. Readers naturally want to draw connections between the art and the artist and the fascination personal detail is understandable. But reading Andre Dubus, a middle-aged war veteran who was able, with such clarity and compassion, to convey the girlish longing and the steely single-mindedness of an overweight teenager, also reminds you that an author’s personal history is possibly the least interesting thing about him. Artists create from a far deeper place than their personal selves, something Dubus probably understood better than anybody.