…Considering Andre Dubus, père and fils

Posted on June 25, 2008. Filed under: The Writing Life | Tags: , |

The other night I went to a reading at my venerable hometown Boulder Bookstore, where I heard Andre Dubus III talking about his new novel The Garden of Last Days. I went not only because I wanted to know his secret—how a guy about my age has been building his literary name for over a decade while I’ve been stumbling along, trying to figure out who I am—but because I had seen his father read in a bookstore about twenty years before. There’s something profound about the literary life to be drawn from the comparison, so I’ll draw it here. 

I met Andre Dubus père only once, in Boston, in about 1987 or 1988. By then he was already in a wheelchair, more bloated than his pictures suggested, and missing a leg. (He had lost it in 1986 while trying to help some motorists whose car had broken down; it is discussed in his New York Times obituary and elsewhere.) I had read his stories, respected them, wished I had written them myself. His reading at a bookstore in Kenmore Square was a chance to get near a living fiction master, so I took it. 

The sad fact is, I have no memory of what Dubus read that night. It might have been just after his Selected Stories came out, but I’m not certain—I don’t remember any of the promotions and kerfluffle that accompany a new book. It’s equally possible that literary friends of his had coaxed him out to pull him from the shell he had fallen into after the accident. All I truly remember of the experience is the following thought, which repeated itself in my mind throughout the short reading and the long, beautiful, Q & A that followed: 

Man, that guy is happy for somebody who just lost a leg and almost died. 

I couldn’t stop thinking that while he answered question after question from maybe a dozen young writers, all as eager to pick up his vibe as I was. I suspect there were two reasons for his happiness. The first was a certain generosity of soul that he possessed, the same kind of big-hearted magnanimity that led him to almost lose his life helping strangers. People who met him far more than once have reported the same sense. The second reason I suspect was something more literary: communion with his readers. I use that word communion with all its Catholic weight, since it is a sacred aspect of the literary endeavor. (Dubus père was Catholic and I am too, so you’ll have to live with the metaphor whether you like it or not.) As he talked with us until well past the bookstore’s closing time, he made us feel that We are all in this together. That readers and writers are part of a single activity called literature regardless of whose name is in the book and whose thumbs are rifling through the pages. 

So I went to see Dubus fils at the Boulder Bookstore wondering if that same vibe would manifest itself, and lo and behold it did. Throughout the event, a public interview with Dan Drayer of KCFR Presents, he put himself out there the way his dad had two decades before. One gesture—a swordlike chop of his arm across his chest as he mock-dismissed a question—gave me an immediate and visceral memory of his father, and the longer he talked the more of a similarity I saw. The younger Dubus has had every opportunity in the world to disconnect from his readers and just be a star: big book deals, the imprimatur of Oprah, a successful film adaptation of House of Sand and Fog, etc. If he wanted to mail the interview in, he could have; instead, he was the most engaging, engaged author I’ve seen on tour in years. Instead of hiding behind his big new book he asked questions of nearly everyone in the book signing line—something I’d never seen from an author before.  

In short, Dubus fils showed curiosity not only for his characters—which he discussed in his interview—but for his own readers. To me, this is a sign of the very same respect for the reader-writer relationship that his father had. I can’t speak for the man, but I doubt he would disagree that we are all in this literary endeavor together, writers and readers dead and living and yet to be born. I can’t say how refreshing it felt to see someone who could easily have been seduced by literary fame put himself out there and be an open human being who doesn’t hide behind the label AUTHOR.

I’ve seen that spirit now from two writers named Andre Dubus, and this second iteration makes the first sink deeper. Twenty years ago, I simply knew that I wanted to be a writer; now I have a clearer idea about kind of the writer I am, as well a tiny glimmer of how deep the reader-writer interface runs and what it means to the literary endavor. Sometimes—whatever phase of the pursuit of literature you’re in—you see somebody and say That’s how I want to be. I feel lucky to have seen Dubus père and Dubus fils, twenty years apart, and take away the same lesson from their presence. It’s a lesson I’ll have to live up to. 

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