My favorite sentence from Andre Dubus’s new collection of novellas—critics use words like “staggeringly good,” “masterful,” and “fantastic” to describe it—comes at the very end of the final story, about a troubled teenager who goes to live with her great uncle, a retired high school English teacher and reformed alcoholic. The uncle has just had a conversation with his nephew, another alcoholic, who can’t forgive his daughter for her sexual behavior. The uncle muses that he can’t judge Devy, his great niece, for her way of blotting out a painful present, when he himself has tossed into the fire all the good work he’d done as a teacher by drinking himself into insensibility.
“Burn it, burn it all,” he thinks to himself; “burn being a good teacher, burn being a good man, burn being a good citizen and following the rules, and burn them especially—burn the rules, these invisible cages around us, for”—and here comes the part I like best—“if he’s learned nothing in all his years he’s learned that, that from our first gasps for air till our last, we simply want to be left alone to do what we want to do when we want to do it, and because this is rarely the case we crave oblivion in any way it presents its dark, sweet self to us.” Ah, that dark, sweet self, who can resist it? Besides being forceful and eloquent, besides putting its finger on a home truth, the sentence gives us comfort: the comfort of knowing that our own search for oblivion, the almost unconscious urge to blot out the present moment in any way we can, is one we share with all beings. It’s why people listen to music through headphones on the subway, read magazines in the doctor’s office, paperbacks on the beach. It’s why people everywhere are right now gazing into their cellphones or staring at computer screens, hungry for the mental fix these devices provide, jumping at the chance to escape their own naked awareness. For oblivion, as we know, can be achieved in many ways, not just through sex, drugs, and alcohol, but also in the form of respectable pursuits such as work, exercise and good deeds, not to mention eating, surfing the Internet, and watching TV.
What Dubus’s characters are escaping from is the pain of existence that arises when the mind is free from distraction. In these stories, that pain comes from what the author chooses to call “dirty love,” unhappy relationships between men and women: blighted romances, failed marriages, promiscuity, debased sex, and soon-to-be-smashed fantasies of true love. Love, as he sees it, always falls short of perfection, is always flawed somehow, which is to say, not changeless, not immune to injury or decay, not the ideal experience of happy communion with another embodied soul that we all imagine can be ours. In each story we inhabit the consciousness of a person who has been disappointed in love: a man who discovers that his wife has been unfaithful; a lonely single woman who at last meets someone to marry only to discover, afterwards, that she cannot love him; a bartender who meets and marries the perfect wife but can’t prevent himself from cheating on her; and the teen and her great uncle, a complicated pair, whose affection for one another is contrasted to their variously flawed attempts to find happiness with a partner.
Dubus is a genius at getting inside people’s heads and tracking their experience in a way so real, so familiar, so believable, and so compassionate that the understanding he extends to the characters in their frailty seems to make up for the trials they undergo. Their emotional hardship is handled with such accuracy and tenderness that it is a pleasure to read the stories even though they are often wrenching.
For me the most powerful moment in the collection comes at the end of the first novella, when the cuckolded husband, who for the time being has retreated to his mother’s apartment above the garage, decides to repair the damage he did to his own dining room when he raged at his wife about her infidelity. It’s a long passage, in which the character remembers a moment of happiness from his own past, regrets the way he has long treated his wife, and imagines his way into a different future, where he would apologize to her, never try to control her again, and slowly build something new alongside her. We don’t know how things will turn out for him, but there’s hope, which we can tell from the buoyancy and rhythms of the sentences as well as from what they say.
Opinions differ as to the last story, the most ambitious of the four, about a fifteen-year-old girl who starts giving blow-jobs to get the boys’ approval. I took an informal survey of friends who had read it and none of them liked it, but, on re-reading, I think it’s a winner and worth sticking with, despite the tough going. Andre Dubus III is best known for his critically acclaimed novel, House of Sand and Fog (next on my list), which was made into a movie. These stories are superb and not to be missed.~