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Several months ago, Amy Reilly told me that one of the best classroom experiences she had at Colgate was when Andre Dubus visited Professor Frederick Busch's Living Writers class and read them A Father's Story.   I had honestly never heard of Dubus, but my curiosity was piqued and then, serendipitously, I heard an interview on Fresh Air (NPR) with his son, the novelist Andre Dubus III.  Both father and son seemed interesting and I resolved to give them a try.   I recently found a short novel by the elder Dubus (who died earlier this year) called Voices from the Moon and enjoyed it immensely.  It happens to also appear in his Selected Stories along with A Father's Story, so I read that too.  I can see why Amy was so impressed, it's a great story.

Dubus sets his tales along the Massachussets/New Hampshire border and seems to have turned it into his own Yoknapatawpha County.  But what is really distinctive is the spiritual territory that he has carved out with these stories of decent men trying to be true to Catholic beliefs in the face of difficult circumstances.  The men at the center of the stories are entrepreneurs, as opposed to professionals or workmen.  They are brawny brawling types, fond of beer and cigarettes and women, love their wives (even ex-wives) and children deeply and they are immersed in the rituals of Catholicism.  Here is the father of A Father's Story:

    I go to bed early and sleep well and wake at four forty-five, for an hour of silence.  I never want to
    get out of bed then, and every morning I know I can sleep for another four hours, and still not fail
    at any of my duties.  But I get up, so have come to believe my life can be seen in miniature in that
    struggle in the dark of morning.  While making the bed and boiling water for coffee, I talk to God:
    I offer Him my day, every act of my body and spirit, my thoughts and moods, as a prayer of
    thanksgiving, and for Gloria and my children and my friends and two women I made love with after
    Gloria left.  This morning offertory is a habit from my boyhood in a Catholic school; or then it was
    a habit, but as I kept it and grew older it became a ritual.  Then I say the Lord's Prayer, trying not
    to recite it, and one morning it occurred to me that a prayer, whether recited or said with
    concentration, is always an act of faith.

Most of the characters in the stories are similar--while recognizing their own limitations, they are making the effort to be good Christians, or, at the least, good people.  In this story, the Father has reached a point in his life where he feels that he has achieved some sense of inner peace.  But this peace is destroyed when his daughter comes to him for help and he embarks on a course that, while he feels it is justified, he knows is wrong.

In Voices from the Moon, the father falls in love with his son's ex-wife and over the course of the novel must confront both of his sons, his daughter and his ex-wife with this revelation.  The recurring image in the story is that of communion.  Each character has certain rituals, involving Mass or alcohol or cigarettes or food, wherein they seek an inner solitude in which they can be at peace.  The father, in particular, is no longer a practicing Catholic, but he has built his home into a virtual monastery, with a deck, surrounded by woods, where he goes at night to think and dream.  For him, the most troubling aspect of his predicament is the self-knowledge that he has transgressed the rules that make it possible for family members to trust one another and that, therefore, he could lose his son.

The stories are a real pleasure to read; it is all too rare in modern fiction to find writing that is so explicitly morally focussed.  The certainty with which Dubus conveys the conviction that some things are right and others are wrong, even if we (or his characters) can't always measure up to the standard, is especially refreshing in this age of moral relativism.

One warning: there is a subtle aspect of misogyny to the stories that, while totally consistent with Catholic tradition, may be troubling to some readers.  In both of these stories, men betray their own sense of what is right because of women.  The recurrence of this theme is understandable and makes sense in the context of Dubus' broader moral outlook, but readers should be aware that it exists.


Grade: (A)


Book-related and General Links:
    -STORY: Online If They Knew Yvonne
    -Vintage Books Readers Guide: Andre Dubus
    -ESSAY: Brothers: On Opening Day, You remember Gifts That Even Time Cannot Take Away (ANDRE DUBUS, Salon)
    -ANDRE DUBUS: NOT JUST ANOTHER PRETTY WRITER By Joan Baum (East Hampton Independent)
   -REVIEW: of Meditations from a Movable Chair (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
   -REVIEW: of DANCING AFTER HOURS  Afraid of Sharks, Rifles And the Passing of Time (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
   -REVIEW: of THE LAST WORTHLESS EVENING Four Novellas & Two Stories (Clancy Sigal, NY Times Book Review)
   -REVIEW: THE TIMES ARE NEVER SO BAD A Novella and Eight Short Stories. By Andre Dubus (Joyce Carol Oates, NY Times Book Review)
   -REVIEW: of BROKEN VESSELS (Leonard Kriegel, NY Times Book Review)