Like Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus sets his stories largely among the blue-collars and other Americans who confront impossible demands with narrow means.
Unlike the austere and finely voiced Carver, Dubus endows his constricted lives with large-scale emotions. Rage, lust, longing, violence and despair are painted with deep-hued, tumultuous colors in this selection of the author’s work over the last 15 years.
In one story, a father whose son has been shot dead by the estranged husband of his girlfriend, kidnaps the killer, shoots him and buries him. In another, a wife stabs her husband to death after he has raped her, beaten up her lover, and set a circle of fire around the house where she is staying.
And in a third, a domestic brawl escalates after a man throws his young son across the room for interfering with his view of the television set. The boy’s arm is broken. His mother smashes the television set. The husband sets their house on fire, nearly burning their two daughters to death. After rescuing them, the wife runs her husband over with their car.
Dubus is no minimalist.
What he is, is harder to decide. If he made spaghetti sauce--and from the many scenes in which someone cooks a meal as a kind of redeeming truce, one suspects he does--it would be intensely flavored, dark red, bursting with extra meat, and redolent of six different herbs. It would be savory and strangely wearying.
The passions and desperations are rendered so vividly that the reader is shaken, first, and then numbed. Sex is explosive, rage a choking sensation, sorrow is worse than dying, religious scruples are a burning agony. Not that Dubus would use such phrases. There is not a cliche in the entire book; and everything is made from scratch and at triple strength.
Dubus writes of the lives of those who are not quite at the bottom of the social and economic scale. They haven’t given up yet; they are still struggling painfully. They have enough of the American Dream to dream it, but not enough to get a piece of it. They are choked and desperate.
“Who’s going to buy one?” screams the husband in “Rose” after his wife breaks the television screen with his beer bottle and runs to tend their son’s broken arm. “It’s the only . . . peace I’ve got.”
Behind the horror of that grotesque cry, there is the pity. Class is a theme that recurs in these stories, many of them set in the depressed Merrimac Valley of northeastern Massachusetts. Dubus uses passion and violence, as Gorky and Dreiser did, to declare that the world is arranged to drive the poor mad.
How do you portray the life of quiet desperation, so that the desperation is not lost in the quiet? With great subtlety, as Carver does; but even then, the quiet can take over. Or else, by making the quiet scream. That is Dubus’ method. Often it pierces us; often, it deafens us.
He is so extraordinarily, uniquely right about so many things. Nobody writes about fatherhood, for example, with such raging compassion. In “Killings,” he makes us feel how sheerly unbearable it is for a father to have his son killed.
Like so many parents, the father had mourned his child dozens of times in his imagination--when he crossed the street alone for the first time, went skating, drove the family car.
And now, “all the fears he had known while they were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him in the head and swept him out to sea.”
It is searing perception, that sentence, yet it cools even as it burns. The rhetorical wave image disperses itself. And the story’s crowded step-by-step narrative about how the father and a friend abduct and kill the killer, is excessive. So it is in “Rose”; and in “The Pretty Girl,” where the wife stabs the husband who has raped her and who comes back in the simple belief that she had enjoyed it.
It is not the outsize incidents that furnish the excess, though. Dubus makes an astonishing fictional case for them. What mars many of the stories--some of them potentially brilliant--is the excessive writing.
Like one of the fathers he understands so well, Dubus can’t let his offspring go, trust it, and be silent. He tends to tell us so much about each of their lives, each of their emotions, each of their shifts and compulsions, that the gesture, tone and spirit are swamped by the author’s voice. Evocation becomes an ornate accretion of detail.
Dubus’ style can be a kind of cloud cover over an extraordinary landscape. Sometimes it altogether blots out his wit and passionate sense of the shapes of men’s and women’s lives in hard times. Sometimes, these show through dimly and intermittently. And sometimes, the view is unimpeded; and what a view it can be!
“Winter” is a discerning picture of the awkwardness of a divorced father with his two children. “Anna” and “Townies” are taut and ironic accounts of the divisions of class and wealth in a small town. “Delivery” is a splendid story of a boy who fights pain and takes responsibility when his mother leaves home.
By far the finest of the stories, almost a novella in scope, is “Voices From the Moon.” It tells of the effect of two disruptions on the fabric of a family’s life. One is the departure of the mother, Joan, after 27 years, to live alone in the same town and work as a waitress. The other is the decision of Greg, the father, to marry his oldest son’s divorced wife.
It is an eventful story; there is love, anger and painful acts of growing in it. And yet it is oddly peaceful. Dubus has created a pond so still and crystalline that the lines of disturbance and reconciliation display their complex and graceful geometry.
The focus is the tender sensibility of the youngest boy, who works his way blindly into understanding. But the portraits of the other family members are vivid and memorable. The finest is of Joan. Her love “had died of premature old age,” Dubus writes. She leaves “simply because she had outgrown, not so much Greg, as her marriage to him.” The author evokes the spare and independent life she makes for herself; it is a stirring image of growing up while growing old.
“Voices” is told in a style that is partly purged. Dubus retains the warmth, involvement and elaborateness, but he lets air and light in, as well. It is one of his later stories; it would be nice to think that it promises a clearer, less impeded view of his formidable gifts in the work to come.