A Father's Story
Over Independence Day weekend in 1985, during the early days of my practice marriage, on the back deck of a huge, off-season ski chalet somewhere in West Virginia, while surrounded by skinny-dipping mismatched couples in a tiny adjacent lake and naked mismatched couples in the hot tub downstairs, I fell in love. My then-wife still had her clothes on.
I fell in love that weekend with two men, actually, one of whom doesn't exist. The first thing they both said to me was "My name is Luke Ripley, and this is what I call my life."
A paragraph later, Luke says, "My real life is the one nobody every talks about anymore, except Father Paul LeBoeuf, another old buck."
This love affair started on page 72 of a book, 1984's The Best American Short Stories. It was the first of these I ever bought; John Updike, a hero of mine, was that year's guest editor. The story was called "A Father's Story." It had been published in a place called The Black Warrior Review, and the person who wrote it was named Andre Dubus.
The story did things I didn't know a story could. It had a taut plot that turned on violence -- Luke, a divorced father of three, must decide what do when the youngest, his only daughter, accidentally hits a man on a country road with her car -- and yet the story was at the same time quiet, sincerely religious, and character-driven. It was emotional without being sappy. It ends, of all ridiculous things, with a dialogue between Luke and God, and manages against all logic to make you think that's the only way this story could end. I was not a father, not Catholic, not divorced, not "a big-gutted, gray-haired guy," and had no immediate desire to be any of these, but somehow I identified with Luke.
I remember finishing the story and thinking, This is the sort of story I want to write. I looked up. People in the lake were shouting at me. I called back that I was a shy and repressed Midwestern boy. Inside the chalet, my then-wife played cards at the kitchen table with three other clothed people. I closed the book and started drinking. A masterpiece is not a "sort of story." It is a strange thing that defies categories and does the impossible. I thought maybe I should quit writing fiction. I knew I'd never write anything as good as that story.
* * *
A year later, Andre Dubus stopped on the shoulder of I-93 to help a disabled motorist. As he was saving that woman's life, he was hit by an oncoming car. One leg was amputated, the other was crushed. He spent years in painful physical therapy and severe depression. Eventually, he made it through all this (and wrote about it in the books Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Movable chair), but he didn't write another short story for almost a decade. He died in February, at the age of 62.
Andre Dubus had a son about my age. His name is Andre Dubus III, and at about the time I first started to read his father's work, he, too, would have been starting out as a writer. If I was intimidated by what Andre Dubus did in "A Father's Story," I can't imagine what his own son must have felt.
From what I've read, father and son loved the bejesus out of each other.
Andre Dubus lived to see his son publish three books, including his breakthrough book, the novel House of Sand and Fog. But he died before seeing HOuse's panoply of rave reviews and its much-deserved National Book Award nomination.
"I think if I were to read something by Ernest Hemingway III," Dubus III recently told Barnes & Noble.com, "it would be hard not to think of The Sun Also Rises, for example. I am hopeful, though, that over the years our work will find their place, and the confusion will not be as understandably acute as it sometimes is right now."
At this point, House has probably sold more copies and certainly made more money than any of the 11 books his father wrote.
* * *
Three years after I read that first Andre Dubus story, I was thrilled to see that his Selected Stories were coming out. I had a son about to be born. I bought a hardback copy I could not afford.
As I read the stories and novellas in that book, I found myself wondering why Dubus didn't have as large a readership as another of my heroes, Raymond Carver. Both took as one of their chief subjects adultery and wrote masterfully about it (Dubus, it seems, writes better about the hardest truths of actually being married). Both wrote about male violence without seeming to be secretly in love with it (Dubus, however, is more realistic about its seductiveness). Both wrote in a direct, blunt, astonishingly honed style about blue-collar characters. Both were among American literature's most spiritual writers. Neither ever wrote a novel.
Carver, though, had an agnostic's spirituality, which may have broader appeal than Dubus's focused (but not at all didactic) Catholicism. Dubus, too, practically specialized in novellas. Why this is the least commercial thing a prose writer can write, I don't understand. Yes, it's hard to get them published in magazines. But there's grand pleasure to be had in 100-page stories that give you everything 400-page ones do. Dubus does this as well as any recent writer you can name.
He lived a rough, colorful life that, from afar, he seemed to embrace with great joie de vivre. He joined the Marines, became an officer, and began publishing short stories; after a conflict with a commanding officer, Dubus resigned and went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop. His work was slow in coming and published in respectable but not for the most part lucrative places. He worked blue-collar jobs and wrote in spiral notebooks and was married three times. Most of his books were published by David R. Godine: again, a tony but not lucrative place to publish. Eventually he made a living, as most of us eventually do, by teaching writing. He became widely admired by other writers and won a MacArthur fellowship (the so-called genius grant). After his accident and rehabilitation, he returned to fiction with a sublime collection called Dancing After Hours.
Today my son is threatening to become a writer. I am divorced and remarried, to a woman who is Catholic. I am not quite big-gutted and gray-haired, but you can see it from where I stand. Today I reread "A Father's Story" for the first time since my daughter was born, and I found myself scared to death and in love again with Andre Dubus.