Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Morning Thanks--Andre Dubus

The only time I ever knew him, he seemed ADD.  The novelist I'd wanted to study with that summer played second or third fiddle to Andre Dubus; and I was embarrassed not to have heard of him because it seemed that his class that year at the University of Indiana was the one young writers like me were dying to get in.  He was up, it seemed, always, every time I saw him.  To his own big reading--a nightly honor given to the master writers--he came in sweats.  I could have sworn that he'd just been jogging.  

And then, that night, he read his story, a story titled "The Father's Story," which, to my mind, has to rank as one of the most beautiful stories of faith ever been written by anyone, anywhere.  There, in Bloomington, I bought and read more of his work while the workshop was going--"Adultery," the story of a fallen priest, and others, many others.  I told him once that if I'd written that story myself, I'd quit right then, having said all I could with a pen.  He smiled.

It was just the next year, 1986, when I read a news story about his having been hit by a car, putting him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  Somewhere on my shelves at school, I've got a collection of essays he wrote about becoming being wheelchair-bound and, for the first time in his life, so deeply dependent on others.  That book, Broken Vessels, is written with the kind of disciplined attention to detail that characterizes his fiction, a brutal honesty that, often as not, makes you wince.  

That accident that put him in a chair changed him in many ways, and his last collection of stories, Dancing After Hours, a book I've used in literature classes almost ever since its publication in 1996, carries a theme that suggests firmly that suffering is a profound spiritual discipline.  In story after story, it's people with handicaps who are more capable of love, having learned, by necessity, to accept it from others.

If my students have treasured his writing a tenth as much as I have, then I've succeeded as a teacher.  Andre Dubus, whose birthday it is this morning, never got rich, but he succeeded, certainly, as a writer.

More than as a father.  Not long ago, I read a memoir by his son, Andre Dubus III, who tells another painful story, this one about his near-abandonment by his father, the writer in sweats, a man who loved chasing young women--including his own students--more than his own young children.  That memoir, Townie,  made it perfectly clear that Andre Dubus II, the wild man at Bloomington that summer, in real life was all of that and more and worse.  

It was disconcerting for me to learn that a man who can be so deeply spiritual in his prose, so powerfully convicted of the efficacy of grace--long before the accident even--could be so unworthy a vessel.  Even though he was always a wonderful writer, there's no doubt he was a better man once he was sentenced to that chair.  

Somewhere in that deeply Catholic mind of his, he understood the folly of his wandering, and he believed, deeply, in overwhelming power of the sacrament as a means of grace.  But to read his son's story is to be convinced that, for far too many years, this man, this gracious writer, was a jerk, an asshole. 

Maybe it's ironic, maybe not, that his most anthologized story, "The Father's Story," is all about grace, all about a car accident, all about forgiveness.  Not long after he wrote it, he became himself a variation on that theme in an car accident that broke his own stubborn pride and made him a more whole than he'd ever been.

He died in 1999, victim of a heart attack.  But the savior he seemed so deeply to know already years earlier, even when he was vastly more a jackass than a father and husband, had a decade earlier already attacked that same heart and brought him home, kicking and screaming.

His stories are riveting, immensely powerful; but the narrative of his life is unforgettable.  

It's his birthday today, and I'm thankful, this morning, for Andre Dubus II, whose taught me a great deal about literature and life.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for remembering and sharing your memories of Andre Dubus. I learned that he was born in the, now about to be, famous state of Iowa. In his days he also got angry with the Dem. president -Clinton. There is additional interesting info about him in Wikipedia and the Salon piece cited. At least Andre was "real," but no real Calvinist.

sjk said...

Your teaching of Dubus had a profound impact on me as well, and I've given Dancing in the Dark as a gift on a couple of occasions.