Inspired By Anger and Injury : FICTION : DANCING AFTER HOURS, By Andre Dubus<i> (Alfred A. Knopf: $23;, 233 pp.)</i>
For more than two decades, Andre Dubus’ short stories have probed for an old-fashioned vein of unashamed emotion. He is a writer who insists that, as regards the human spirit, there is a “there” there. He has bored down after it for depths more than for light, for passion more than subtlety, for dramatic judgment more than suggestion. He has, as an editor once remarked of someone else, “a distrust of the implicit.”
At his weakest this leads to emotional cliches and heavy-duty epiphanies. At his best it has meant pressing on with all his luggage to a truth that is not so much unadorned as overdressed, yet it is the real thing for all that.
He is a bull outside our literary china shop. He plunges about off in the distance and word filters back of overturned garbage cans, clouds of flies, small dogs inconvenienced and an occasional lovely calf.
In his latest collection, Dubus writes of the battered, the injured, the life-worn. Some of the injuries are physical: from war wounds, grotesque accidents or violence. Others come from the toll of our times: falling out of high-speed lives or starving on a junk-food diet of sexual gratification without cost or commitment.
In most of the stories the protagonists are middle-aged, like Dubus himself. Several are crippled; again, like Dubus, who was hit by a car while stopping to help another driver and, partly paralyzed, uses a wheelchair.
Perhaps in no previous collection has the writer put so much of himself--injury, anger, valor--so noticeably into the stories. This may account for the strength of several of them and, perhaps, for the weakness of a number of others.
Crippling is literal, in different ways, in three of the best stories. More generally--in others, for example where the damage is done more gradually by the depredations of modern life--the theme is the need to affirm life with whatever is left.
Dubus is essentially a religious writer. (Several of his characters are thoughtfully practicing, if imperfect, Catholics.) Virtually all of the stories have some of the quality of the sermon anecdote before the sermon lesson.
Generally a lesson is indeed drawn at the end. It tends to feel imposed, though not always. More damagingly, as in a church sermon, it seems to fabricate the story that precedes it.
In this collection there are one or two pieces that simply do not work. More commonly, Dubus damages promising material by using his authorial power too blatantly. He likes a front-loaded start (“She was a woman in her 30s, a poet and she was afraid to fly,” “When her heart broke, she was 37") that seems to suggest a distrust not merely of the implicit, but of the reader’s ability to listen without flapping his ears.
There are the fast generics that flog us toward the traditional end-of-story trap instead of enticing us there, cheese-like.
In several stories about aging men and women, he will write of someone who has had three marriages, say, and three lovers, and then he will hurry on. He bustles us toward revelation.
Contrary to Shakespeare’s Hotspur, it is possible not only to call spirits from the vasty deep but, if you are a writer, to get them to come--only you need their names and a local particular or two.
Yet there are stories in “After Hours Dancing” that accomplish something powerful and would not do it, perhaps, without some of the author’s flaws attached.
He plays God too often and too insistently, but sometimes he is not playing.
There are, for example, moments of violence that go into a kind of sublime, oddly peaceful overdrive. In “Blessings,” a wife recalls a day of horror in a kind of reconciled tranquillity (a little too obviously reconciled). She, her husband and their two grown children chartered a fishing boat in the Virgin Islands. Suddenly--due to faulty maintenance--it sinks and a school of big sharks appears, tearing the first mate to pieces.
Eventually a helicopter comes and rescues them--all but the captain, whose arm is chewed off. This is vivid and garish but what goes beyond that is the woman’s recollection of her daughter, kicking purposefully for 47 minutes to push the sharks away. She can’t remember her own legs, only her daughter’s.
Nature--perhaps God--lives in those long persistent legs as surely as in the sharks.
Two stories tell of a man who uses a wheelchair. In “The Colonel’s Wife,” an active and assertive ex-Marine falls from a horse and lives for months dependent upon his wife. The helplessness, the humiliations and the courage are movingly portrayed. So is the unexpected use of the confinement to bring out a mutual confession of infidelity. So are the colonel’s helpless tears--not of anger but of fear--and a cheerfully believable ending.
In the title story, the example of a quadriplegic who insists on living as hard as he can restores a living confidence to a woman in her 30s. The disabled man made a parachute jump lashed to his instructor and broke his two already useless legs. Dubus gives himself time to tell the story, he lets it build gradually and by the end both the cripple’s extravagance and the message are believable and unforced.
In “The Timing of Sin,” a subtle and disconcerting story pops out of an ordinary one. A suburban housewife and a friend, both happily married, exchange confidences. One had shared a cigarette in her car with a man she worked with. Their mutual attraction asserted itself and they began to make love; then the moment passed in the few seconds it took her to unfasten her jeans.
“It was the jeans that saved me,” she tells her friend. “If I had been wearing a skirt I could’ve just pulled up.” That is slick, but not what follows: her reflection that only the thinnest line separated her from what would have destroyed her. She is a Catholic, and serious about it, but the line will always be thin and easily crossed until she grows old--and she will never be safe. Dubus at his best--a best unlike anyone else’s--imparts not an easy benediction but a difficult one.