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We Drank Mint Juleps with His Sister

From today’s Writer’s Almanac.

I read this after reading (and relishing) a few chapters of the last part of Brian Jobe’s Bird’s Nest in Your Hair (coming soon from this here press!), and Dubus’s remarks quoted in the last paragraph seemed highly apropos. “A first book is a treasure.”

It’s the birthday of fiction writer Andre Dubus II (books by this author), born in Lake Charles, Louisiana (1936). He grew up in a Cajun-Irish-Catholic family, went to Catholic schools, studied English and journalism, and then joined the military. While he was in the military, he married a woman named Patricia, a Louisiana homecoming queen. He served for six years, and became a captain. He and Patricia had four children.

Dubus left the military to pursue his real passion: writing fiction. He was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and moved his whole family to Iowa City. They had a happy few years there, surrounded by friends, attending parties and discussing literature. He published his first novel, The Lieutenant (1967), and he got a job teaching in New England. The family moved to New Hampshire, then Massachusetts. Dubus was a popular professor, and his books of fiction were well-regarded by other writers like John Updike, Richard Yates, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Even as his professional life took off, his family fell apart — and that is the story that his son, the novelist Andre Dubus III, told in a recent memoir, Townie (2011). Andre Dubus II left his wife and four children for a beautiful young student, and in some ways he never looked back. He remained a dutiful father — he picked up his kids once a week and took them out to eat somewhere, and he showed up for family holidays. But he was teaching at Bradford College, living a much different life than his ex-wife and children. The life of the elder Dubus consisted of working on stories, jogging, drinking, having affairs with students, attending parties and giving readings. Meanwhile, the rest of his family was struggling to make ends meet, living in poverty in a series of Massachusetts mill towns. The young Andre Dubus and his siblings were bullied until Andre spent a year and a half obsessively lifting weights and conditioning himself to be a fighter so that he could stand up for all of them. He began to thrive on violence. His mother worked long hours and was constantly exhausted; the house was disgusting, and there were always drugs around but never enough food. But his mother did her best — Dubus said: “My mother was making $135 a week. But she had resilience and imagination. She might take frozen vegetables, cook them with garlic, onion and Spam, and it would taste like a four-star dinner.” Through it all, the elder Andre Dubus would show up to take his kids out to eat, but he seemed oblivious to how different his own life was from that of his children.

Late on a summer night in 1986, Andre Dubus II was driving back to campus from Boston, where he had been gathering material for a story. He saw a couple of young people on the side of the highway who had gotten in an accident — they had hit an abandoned motorcycle. Their names were Luis and Luz Santiago, a brother and sister. Dubus pulled over to help them and had just gotten out of his car when another vehicle swerved off the road straight for the three of them. Luis was killed, and Luz survived only because Dubus pushed her out of the way. Dubus was seriously injured, and doctors thought he might not survive. He did, but one leg was amputated and the other never recovered, so he was confined to a wheelchair. His third wife, Peggy, left him within a year of the accident. He lived alone in a rural house built on a steep hill.

By this time, Andre Dubus III was in his 20s. He had started publishing stories, and he and his father had found some things in common — they talked about writing, or about fighting — as an ex-Marine, Andre the Elder was proud of his son’s skills. Now, after the accident, with the elder Andre seeming vulnerable for the first time, the father and son were able to truly reconnect. The younger Andre and his brother Jeb built ramps all around their father’s house, and Andre taught his father how to lift weights. They traveled and did readings together. In 1999, Andre III said goodbye to his father and headed to the West Coast for a book tour promoting his new novel, the best-selling House of Sand and Fog (1999). Soon after, Andre II died of a heart attack.

Andre Dubus II’s books include Adultery and Other Choices (1977), Finding a Girl in America (1980), The Times are Never So Bad (1983), The Last Worthless Evening (1986), and Dancing After Hours (1996). His story “Killings” was adapted into the film In the Bedroom (2001).

Dubus said: “A first book is a treasure, and all these truths and quasi-truths I have written about publishing are finally ephemeral. An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them which becomes a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s own blood, and with the occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes or longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk; and when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and, more dangerously, despair, convinced that the work was not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed.”

Comments

  1. Churchill says:

    Nicely written.

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