I don’t think anyone writes better about men and masculinity than Andre Dubus: not Carver, not Updike, not Ford. Like Carver his characters live at a specific place and time, an America recovering from Vietnam (many of them are Veterans), and struggling with their personal lives. In The Winter Father, a local radio DJ is separating from his wife, and in doing so begins to discover his children properly for the first time. He’s not a bad man, that’s the thing, but the separation is a sign of how he and his wife have fallen out of love, if they ever were given they married young. He takes his children on a Wednesday evening and on weekend days, and takes them to the places where other divorced men are with their kids, the cinema, the fast food joint; sledging on the hills in winter, then on the beach in summer. What separates Dubus from other writers is that every line seems to resonate with detail, he unpicks the minutiae of lives, and from it builds up a complete picture. The father meets a woman and immediately realises he is trying to recreate a happy family.
Divorced kids go to the beach more than married ones… because married people do chores and errands on weekends.
First published in The Sewanee Review. Collected in Finding a Girl in America, David R. Godine, 1980, and The Winter Father: Collected Short Stories and Novellas, David R. Godine, 2018
Last year, on the strength of a second-hand copy of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, I bought Godine’s three-volume reissue of the collected stories of Andre Dubus. I wanted to learn how to write better, longer fiction, but couldn’t afford the fees for the course I was interested in, so I decided to homeschool myself.
Dubus excels at the long-short form (plenty of other writers do too, of course. Deborah Eisenberg springs to mind, but I didn’t pack her Collected Stories). In ‘A Father’s Story’ we read an account by Luke Ripley of his marriage, the years after it ended, his friendship with a priest; faith, gifts given and mistakes made.
It is not a simple or easy story, but in it Dubus offers the reader hope, which is also a gift, the kind that might get you through a rough patch, however short, however long…
It is not hard to live through a day, if you can live through a moment. What creates despair is the imagination, which pretends there is a future, and insists on predicting millions of moments, thousands of days, and so drains you that you cannot live the moment at hand.
There is a similar passage in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so close to the sentiment I can’t help but wonder if he stole it. I admire, with a kind of wonder, writers like Dubus, who seem to surgically dissect their characters, remove their innards, smear them over the page and still produce beautiful prose. It is a skill, an art.
From The Collected Short Stories & Novellas, David R. Godine, 2018