There are certain places in America that mean something, and Massachusetts could still be said to be one of them.
It is a place where the shadows of abandoned textile mills loom over the sidewalks of sleepy college towns, where the weeds of urban neglect creep up through cobblestones as old as the Commonwealth, and where a young writer can stumble drunk out his back door into the darkness of a New England summer night and find himself standing among the ghosts of Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry James.
In the streets of Haverhill, Massachusetts, the writer Andre Dubus (1936–1999) did precisely that, spending the better part of thirty years writing and teaching in that north-of-Boston town.
In the editor’s note to a new three-volume collection of Dubus’s work (the third of which is forthcoming), the author Joshua Bodwell warns us that “there is perhaps no greater double-edged compliment in literature than the phrase ‘writer’s writer.’” The expression calls to mind authors of great skill who failed somehow to find an audience larger than a cultivated circle of writerly friends.
There is a sense of discovery in reading Dubus for the first time.
There is, for writers and non-writers alike, a sense of discovery in reading Dubus for the first time. For a native New Englander like myself, coming across such gems as “An Afternoon with the Old Man” and “The Winter Father” gave me nostalgia for a childhood spent shivering in backseats while the car warmed up, or visiting pebbly northern beaches during the three or four weeks each summer when the water was warm enough for wading.
Dubus lived and wrote the way we imagine eccentric writers are born to live and write. In his writing room at home sat a fully equipped bench press, on his wall hung a picture of Fenway Park, and jazz albums were strewn about the room. His closet was stocked with guns. When he wrote, he often wore a Japanese kimono and listened to opera— Pavarotti was a favorite.
Dubus lived harder than he wrote, and loved harder than he lived, marrying three times and fathering six children. One pictures him striding down the sidewalks of Haverhill with the lumbering gait of Hemingway, a cocksure grin on his face and a bottle of something tucked in his back pocket.
His writing, too, has that most enviable of qualities which only a few authors have achieved, and even fewer have sustained: it is extremely good. Dubus’s only flaw, which is the flaw of many writer’s writers, is that his prose is often too aware of itself as such. The dialogue frequently sounds too much like written dialogue, and the characters behave more like characters in a story than flesh-and-blood people. Still, now and again Dubus produces a sentence that catches the reader unawares in his masterful grip:
On a moonlit summer night, in a cemetery six blocks from my house, lying perhaps among the bones of old whaling men, in the shadow of a pedestaled eight-foot bronze angel, Hank made love to my red-haired wife.
When reading his novellas and short stories, one begins to realize that they are really all the same story. It is the story of what happens to love when life—that life T. S. Eliot once “measured out with coffee spoons,” but which Dubus measures in glasses of bourbon drunk at 3 A.M., and in unwashed dishes and soiled bed sheets—gets in our way. The short story never rested in more honest hands than when Dubus wrote it, for he wrote only what he knew, and what he knew was the feeling of a relationship growing colder than the icy wind blowing over the Merrimack River.
A sense of the uncanny pervades these portraits of suburban America; Dubus’s work is steeped in the sort of “darkness on the edge of town” one finds in a Springsteen song or a David Lynch film. In the kitchen, all is bright and clean and smelling of aerosol. But then Dubus turns our eyes to the murdered blonde girl lying underneath a bridge, the stench of rotting flesh rising through the pine trees, the sexual predator living next door.
In many of his tales, the men cheat on their wives, the wives cheat on their husbands, and the “whirligig of time brings in his revenges,” as Shakespeare says. Back doors slam in the warm dark nights of New England summers, and the Red Sox are somehow always playing in the background. New Hampshire looms as a mysterious vastness to the north where, down a dirt road after a half-hour drive, men can satisfy their lusts on a blanket in some secluded forest clearing amid pine needles and cold beer. College girls from New York City pass through Dubus’s novels like migratory birds, and his male protagonists are more than willing to let a few come home with them to roost now and again—always unbeknownst to their wives, who are too busy with affairs of their own either to notice or care.
It is the women in Dubus’s stories, however, who cheat on their husbands with a particular two-faced cruelty. One wife “was able to sin and love at the same time,” and another is “bland and evil at the same time.” In the now-infamous story “The Fat Girl,” an obese woman leads a double life that finally destroys her marriage, and in the heart-rending “Going Under,” a wife cheats on her husband with a terminally ill Catholic priest. For Dubus, a woman’s mind was “an adulterous room” that he was never fully able to see inside and understand.
Adultery is the foundation for some of his most enduring stories. The novellas We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Adultery, and Finding a Girl in America follow the disastrous affairs of two couples in a small northern Massachusetts town. For Dubus, adultery was neither a sin nor an escape. Its unchecked physicality seemed to express something deeper than a loveless marriage or an uncontrollable lust. There is an art to cheating that Dubus— working, no doubt, from personal experience—learned to savor.
His stories capture the slow death of the New England town.
Dubus loved Massachusetts and its people with the love we reserve for things that once were beautiful but have changed beyond recognition. His stories capture the slow death of the New England town—a death that has been ongoing since the days of Robert Frost, possibly earlier—and the people who cling to their regional pasts, hoping the changes are not too difficult to bear. Neighborhood bars, once filled with “professional fishermen and lobstermen and other men who worked with their hands,” are purchased by young Boston entrepreneurs and filled with folk music, quiches, and crêpes. In “Townies,” an aging college security guard tries to reclaim a sense of lost innocence and charm:
When he saw the three girls in the tree with the low spreading branches and red leaves, he stopped and looked across the lawn at them, stood for a moment that was redolent of his past, of the way he had always seen the college girls, and still tried to see them: lovely and nubile, existing in an ambience of benign royalty. Their sweaters and hair seemed bright as the autumn sky.
In loving the unlovable, in lusting after the unattainable, Dubus’s characters remind us that love is not an emotional state, but a force of nature. “Love is time,” one man reflects, looking down at a woman he predicts, one day, he will come to love.
If love is time, then Dubus’s work may one day be discovered by a new generation of readers, who will love his writing as honestly and completely as he loved the craft of writing.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 80
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