The best fictional book I have ever read on divorce is a short story by André Dubus called “The Winter Father”. Divorce is a quintessentially American subject, yet it seems to me that even great writers – I think of you, Henry James – have gone wrong, first by treating it as an opportunity to find moral wrongs and, second, by cutting themselves off. deceiving it for the end of the story rather than the beginning.
“The Winter Father” begins with divorce and explores the disconcerting changes it brings to the meaning of family. For the sake of their children, Peter and Norma are forced to evolve overnight from bickering husbands to resolutely cordial friends. In Norma’s eyes, on her first visit after the separation, Peter sees the glimmers of a “new marriage vow: this is how we will love our children now; look how good I can do it. Peter’s time with his children is also altered, suddenly filled with frantic outings to movies and museums and batting cages, and capped off by the “fragile rite” of dining in restaurants. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” a friend tries to comfort him. “You probably spend more time with them now than when you lived together. Amidst the melancholy, ironic humor, and tender vulnerability of the story lies a glimpse that is both rare and liberating: that divorce is an agent of loss but also, and just as important, an act. Creation.
It’s the work of André Dubus that matters the most to me. But because Dubus wrote short stories with such unwavering devotion, interweaving strands of sadness and a kind of reckless perpetual optimism around the themes of military life, parenthood, adultery, abuse and revenge, each reader will have a different favorite. His handwriting has now been repackaged into an attractive three-volume set, “Collected Short Stories and Novellas” (David R. Godine, $ 18.95 each), which brings together, in some 1,300 pages, five of his collections of stories, the new independent “Voices From the Moon” and nine unpublished stories. Edited by Joshua Bodwell and accompanied by heartfelt introductions by Ann Beattie, Richard Russo and Tobias Wolff, this is by far the most comprehensive offering of Dubus’ fiction, all that’s missing is “The Lieutenant” (1967), the only novel he wrote at the start of his career, and the last collection “Dancing After Hours” (1996), which, unlike his others, was not published by Godine but by Alfred A. Knopf.
Dubus (1936-99) was a Louisiana native and Marine Corps veteran who studied at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, soaking up the stories of Chekhov and Hemingway as well as those of his instructor Richard Yates, whose relentless domestic realism was likely an influence. He’s often lumped together with (and unfairly overshadowed by) contemporaries such as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, but the comparison is misleading. Despite being a dedicated screenwriter with a talent for dramatic compression, Dubus was no minimalist. His writing is often quite talkative and descriptive. Terse disillusion was a hallmark of the era, but Dubus’ stories tend to be cluttered and argumentative. He is attracted to large families in turmoil.
This was undoubtedly related to his Catholicism, the governing force of his writing, and perhaps the reason he was long treated as a niche author. Catholic concerns are dealt with explicitly. “The Cross Country Runner” is the heartwarming story of a couple who are drowning in debt and children because of the Church’s ban on birth control – crushed, the husband thinks, between the forces of “Passion and fertility”. Abortion is a recurring tragedy, more powerful in “Miranda Over the Valley”, where it is portrayed as an instrument of practical nihilism, nullifying the significance of a sexual encounter the young protagonist held to be sacred.
“If there were no sins there would be no art,” Dubus told an interviewer, citing a Jesuit teacher from his youth. Variations in infidelity (usually in the company of alcohol consumption) are examined in the three long linked stories “We don’t live here anymore”, “Adultery” and “Find a girl in America”. In the middle of Dubus’ virtuoso period, in the stories that make up volume 2, he began to take a closer interest in the sin of wrath. “Killings” is the painstaking tale of a father who executes his son’s murderer. The murderer’s terrible premonition of humanity obscures the father’s vengeance, an unwanted awareness of “the circles of love he touched with the hand that held the gun.”
But as with “The Winter Father”, these stories are notable for the absence of blame. Sin is not an act to be judged in Dubus’ moral universe; rather, it is a place where we reside, or part of the atmosphere that we breathe. Its characters can seem almost helpless, constrained to their misdeeds. “Don’t talk to me about willpower,” says the epic father in the funny, hair-raising and sublimely touching novel “Voices From the Moon,” after revealing he was engaged to his son’s ex-wife. The story centers on her idealistic younger son’s struggle to invoke the virtues of “forgiveness and compassion.” It will be very hard, he thinks, to be Catholic in our house.
Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish Dubus’s love for the sinner from his sympathy for sin. Gluttony is inseparable from the essence of the main character of “The Fat Girl”; when she gets thin because of a punitive diet, she feels like her soul has walked away with the lost weight. In “The Story of a Father”, discreetly masterful, a man encourages a terrible crime to protect his daughter. The story features his private quarrel with God: certain of the correctness of his behavior, he is neither willing to ask for absolution nor able to stop believing. “I no longer feel the peace I once felt: neither with God, nor with the earth, nor with anyone. I began to prefer this state, to fondly remember the other as a period of peace that I neither earned nor deserved.
If Dubus was particularly sensitive to the vibrant humanity of transgression, it was perhaps because he was no stranger to it in his own life. Richard Russo, in his thoughtful introduction to Volume 2, talks about his discomfort reading these stories once he learns about the serial scams and Dubus’ absent parents. (Dubus’ eldest son, novelist Andre Dubus III, wrote about this side of his father in difficult but ultimately loving memories of “Townie.”) Yet Mr. Russo concludes that the beauty of the stories is their ability to inspire the reader. the qualities they practice. Their compassion breeds compassion. Their forgiveness begets forgiveness. In the absence of resolution or transcendence, their power is in the example of their unwavering love for the fallen world.
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