Essays

Reading Andre Dubus in Iowa

By posted at 10:10 am on September 10, 2008 2

This guest post comes to us from Sana Krasikov. Krasikov is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of the debut short story collection, One More Year, which the New York Times calls, “a sensitive book about the economics of relationships: how they can become subtle transactions by people trying to pull off the trick of occupying more than one place and more than one time.” Khaled Hosseini has declared her “a brave new writer.” Her stories have previously appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and Zoetrope.

My first January in Iowa City, I rented a house from an elderly artist couple who were spending the winter in Spain. I’d been looking for a cheap place to live, and they needed someone to keep their house heated so its hundred-year-old pipes didn’t freeze up and burst. A few days after meeting with them, I moved into an antique, three-story Folk Victorian with a painting of a human-sized demonic cat in the entry hall. The house was a writer’s paradise – its wide windowsills were crowded with giant spider plants and birdcages. The rooms were divided with sliding wooden doors which disappeared inside the walls. Canvases of psychedelic dreamscapes lay piled in the corners. Upstairs, I found a studio that still smelled of turpentine, with a drafting table perfect for setting up a laptop. In the kitchen, cords of red Christmas lamps shaped like jalapeño peppers hung from the ceiling. The first few weeks, I awoke every morning to the light from the giant bay window, still not believing my luck. I invited friends and cooked dishes with herbs the artists had planted in their window-boxes.

Then the first hail storm hit and the sewage pipe in the storage room froze and burst, flooding the whole basement. Because the house’s ancient heating system was also in the basement, it became impossible to warm the rooms without drawing up the smell of rot through the iron vents. In the end, I found myself relegated to a single room of my giant mansion — the kitchen, which I could heat by turning on the stove and opening the oven door. And so, I spent most of the winter at a round breakfast table with my back to an oven, reading. On the artists’ shelves, I had found the Selected Stories of Andre Dubus, whom I’d never read before. The first story I turned to was titled, “The Fat Girl.”

“Her name was Louise,” it began. “Once when she was sixteen a boy kissed her at a barbecue; he was drunk and he jammed his tongue into her mouth and ran his hands up and down her hips. Her father kissed her often. He was thin and kind and she could see in his eyes when he looked at her the lights of love and pity.”

The pleasure of discovering a new writer can quicken your senses. My feet were cold and my back was hot and I had never read anything like this. The prose was practically weightless but as direct as a lance. Here was Louise – a girl who couldn’t escape seeing herself as men saw her: the object of a boy’s careless, drunken lust and of her father’s love and pity. Between these two extremes, one already sensed the gaping chasm, the romantic love for which Louise secretly yearns and which she believes she’ll never have.

I read on. Louise’s high school years are spent going on and off diets. “When she was out of the house,” Dubus writes, “she truly believed she was dieting; she forgot about the candy, as a man speaking into his office dictaphone may forget the lewd photographs hidden in an old she in his closet.” She chooses a girls’ school in Massachusetts for college and when her parents discuss it, “everyone so carefully avoided the word boys that sometimes the conversations seemed to be about nothing but boys.” When her roommate, Carrie, discovers Louise’s midnight snacking, she tells her in the dark that should eat chocolates in front of her, whenever she feels like it, and Louise, initially mortified that her “insular and destructive” vice has been exposed, finally agrees. The moment of intimacy between the two friends in the darkness of their dorm room is as poignant as any you’ll read in literature. When Carrie finds a boyfriend and Louise grows depressed, her friend decides to help. “I want you to be loved the way I love you, Louise,” she tells her, and begins cooking all of Louise’s meals on a small stove in their room, serving her black coffee and scrambled eggs every morning, and documenting her weight loss in a journal. Surrendering to her friend’s help, Louise begins to see the world in a new way. “The campus was pretty, on its lawns grew at least one of every tree native to New England, and in the warm morning sun Louise felt a new hope.” So complete is Dubus’ empathy for Louise that a reader senses that he loves her the way God might love mortals – for all the vices that cause them shame, and all the flaws they try to eradicate in themselves. But there is another side to her journey. From then on, Dubus tells us, “Louise entered a period of her life she would remember always, the way some people remember having endured poverty.”

There’s a moment when as a reader you pause and discover that the author has brought you much farther into his vision than you imagined. Louise’s ritualistic relationship to food, her battles with her urges, her vowing to set herself along a more abstemious path are like the struggles of a person grappling with her faith, trying to be good in the face of being human. Dubus never resorts to the pseudo-medical language of “dysfunction” and “disorder,” never turns to the too familiar vocabulary of “recovery.” Instead, the territory he charts is a distinctly religious one. For Dubus, a lifelong Catholic, fiction was first and foremost a moral form. In an interview, he’d once said he didn’t know how somebody without a religious or philosophical background could exist in the world without despair. His isn’t the sort of writing you can compliment by calling it “impressive” in that it doesn’t try to impress on the readers its author’s own intelligence. It offers something better than that: a spiritual inquiry into being human that’s free of sanctimony.

In one of Dubus’s most famous stories, “Killings,” Frank, the son of a small-town doctor and a music teacher comes home from college to spend the summer working on the boats of their fishing-village and falls in love with an older woman whose ex-husband eventually shoots him. When the local authorities declare the murder an accident, Frank’s father, Matt, decides to kill his son’s killer to spare his wife the pain of seeing the man walk free. He knows that what he does is both wrong and necessary. He carries out his plans quietly, while his wife Ruth sleeps. When he returns to their bedroom the next morning, Ruth is up, waiting for him. She asks simply, “Did you do it?”

If there was ever a story that’s evidence to what the short story form can accomplish, “Killings” ought to be one. What novels can’t always make immediate, the compression intrinsic to the short story does. The intensity of reading a great story is a little bit, I think, like sitting with your back to an open stove in a cold kitchen, feeling its heat grow hotter against you as you sit still. It’s something almost physical, an act of intimacy between you and the writer’s words. Dubus reminds me of why I can’t bear to be in a room where thirty other people are reclining on folding chairs, listening to a writer read out loud from his work. When reading becomes a communal activity, it’s too tempting to treat prose as spectacle, to set people up for punchlines or to feel a need to deliver the kind of redemptive moment we’ve become so used to from watching TV and the movies.

The impact of great fiction is delivered slowly and cumulatively. Of all the arts, fiction concerns itself the most not with what is visible, but what is invisible. It raises the question of who we are underneath the complex mess of our observable qualities: age, IQ, sex and social position.

After Louise becomes skinny, she marries a young associate from her father’s firm, a man who takes her on foreign vacations and holds her hand on the plane, where she thinks herself “cunning,” as if the life she is living isn’t really hers. When she tries to recount for him her youth as a fat girl, he gets bored as though she were telling him about a childhood illness. Louise believes that if she can only “command the language” to tell the story of her inner life, her husband “would know and love all of her and she would feel complete.” When she begins to gain weight after the birth of their child, her husband treats her with uncomprehending contempt. In turn, she tests the limits of his frustration by getting bigger. Beneath their arguments, Dubus writes, “lay the question of who Richard was.” Her husband, Louise knows, can see her only as the slender girl he courted at the wheel of his boat. He cannot love her the way her friend did, and his efforts to help Louise do not approach the “compassion and determination and love,” that she remembers on Carrie’s face. And so, shedding her disguise as a skinny girl, Louise drives the wedge in further.

It is often amusing for me to hear interviewers asking an author about his background or personal life. Readers naturally want to draw connections between the art and the artist and the fascination personal detail is understandable. But reading Andre Dubus, a middle-aged war veteran who was able, with such clarity and compassion, to convey the girlish longing and the steely single-mindedness of an overweight teenager, also reminds you that an author’s personal history is possibly the least interesting thing about him. Artists create from a far deeper place than their personal selves, something Dubus probably understood better than anybody.





Share this article

More from the Millions

2 Responses to “Reading Andre Dubus in Iowa”

  1. Imani
    at 6:10 am on September 11, 2008

    Yes! I'm so glad another person has discovered Dubus, a writer who truly justified the short story form to me. I think he's one of the best American writers of the 20th century who should be far more feted than he his now. (It's irrational but I gnash my teeth every time I see another article about the sun :P.)

  2. Anonymous
    at 1:25 pm on September 16, 2008

    There was an awesome piece about him in Poets & Writers over the summer. Here it is! It's what made me buy Selected Stories and Dancing After Hours. Best reads of the summer for me.

    http://www.pw.org/print/490619?destination=content/art_reading_andre_dubus_we_don%E2%80%99t_have_live_great_lives

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.