• U.S.

BOOKS: PAIN AND LOSS: THE UP SIDE

4 minute read
Paul Gray

FOR A TIME, BEGINNING IN THE mid-1960s, aspiring short-story writers who wanted to have their work published in the right places and then talked about in the right circles were drawn to two enormously influential models: the cerebral playfulness of Donald Barthelme and the tense minimalism of Raymond Carver. Andre Dubus, whose stories began appearing in the early ’70s, resisted the temptation to join the crowds of Barthelme and Carver wannabes. His early fiction seemed resolutely unfashionable and untrendy. It arrived lumpy rather than sleek, filled with the ungainliness of ordinary emotions–love, passion, heartbreak, fear–before the intellect has had its chance to reason such feelings into aesthetic submission.

His work through six published volumes did not change, but the critical estimates of it as old-fashioned have. Dancing After Hours (Knopf; 234 pages; $23), Dubus’ first new collection in nearly a decade, has been greatly anticipated, not only because of his growing reputation as contemporary master but also because of the long silence preceding the book’s appearance. And the reason behind that is a sad story indeed. In July 1986, while driving to his Massachusetts home, the author stopped to help at the scene of an accident, and was struck by a car. One of his legs was painfully smashed; the other had to be amputated.

Dubus does not tell this story directly in Dancing After Hours, but the dreadful experience hovers over a number of the book’s 14 tales. Ted Briggs, a Boston lawyer, appears in four of them. He was a Marine corpsman at Khe Sanh in Vietnam, tending to the wounded when “a shell from a mortar had exploded and flung him off the earth and he had fallen back to it, alive.” Now his right knee will barely bend; when he drinks too much, it is the wobbling of his left knee that sounds the alarm in his brain. In The Colonel’s Wife Robert Townsend, three years retired from the Marines, lies immobilized at home after breaking both legs in a fall from a horse. Lydia, his wife, faithfully cares for him while, he suddenly realizes, carrying on an adulterous affair. An important character in the title story, Dancing After Hours, is a quadriplegic who nonetheless once insisted on going sky-diving in Maine, thereby, and, somewhat redundantly, breaking both his legs.

Grim as it might sound in the abstract, this litany of injuries and physical immobilities blends almost imperceptibly into the world of Dubus’ fiction, which has always been concerned with the strategies people find for coping with pain and loss. The quota of physical devastation is higher here than in his previous books, but the reactions of his characters to their travails is much the same: they make the best of them, even when the best is not very good.

The surface clarity of Dubus’ stories masks an underlying complexity of vision. Happy endings, in the conventional sense, sometimes turn out to be sad ones for those who live through them. In The Lover a thrice-divorced restaurant manager in his mid-’50s finds himself in bed with a much younger waitress at his establishment. He has wanted, without doing much to instigate it, this return to a sexual life that he thought was gone, but its aftermath leaves him desolate. “I broke the hearts of three wives. It’s not what I set out to do,” he tells his partner. “I ripped childhood from five children. It’ll always be with them, that pain. Like joints that hurt when it rains.”

In Out of the Snow a woman successfully repels, by bashing them with a skillet, two rapists who followed her home from the supermarket. She then tells her husband, “I didn’t hit those men so I could be alive for the children, or for you. I hit them so the blood would stay in my body; so I could keep breathing. And if it’s that easy, how are we supposed to live?” At their best–and a generous portion of this book qualifies–Dubus’ stories raise that question in dramatic and unexpected ways. He is an artist who manages to produce work at once harrowing and exhilarating.

–By Paul Gray

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com