The Migrations of Love: Reconsidering Andre Dubus

Walt Evans

October 2018

In her first published essay, a 1961 piece for Vogue titled “Self-Respect,” Joan Didion wrote that “people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things.” Two years later, the late Andre Dubus published his first story, “The Intruder,” in the Spring 1963 Sewanee Review. The Collected Short Stories & Novellas of Andre Dubus—the first two volumes of which, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Winter Father, were released in June by publisher David R. Godine—are filled with characters coming to grips with “the price of things.” Take the marine private in “Going Under” who, locked up in the brig, slashes his wrist with a concealed razorblade, then calls for a doctor to save his life. Or the protagonist of “The Fat Girl”—after a lifetime of alternate binge-eating and rigorous dieting, she refuses to start another weight-loss program, accepting her body as it is rather than conforming to her husband’s demands.

Dubus’s fiction is populated by people who’ve made big mistakes, the kind that come to define a life: murderers, rapists, absentee parents, lapsed Catholics, and whiskey priests. But the most self-lacerating introspection occurs among the most common of sinners—adulterers. The cycle of linked stories that form the core of Dubus’s oeuvre and the lion’s share of pages in these two volumes chronicle the shotgun marriages, affairs, divorces, and descents of a group of academics in the late sixties and early seventies in Haverhill, Massachusetts, where Dubus lived and taught for the better part of his life. The three novellas, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Adultery,” and “Finding a Girl in America,” that anchor his first three collections, respectively, form a triptych of the life of fiction writer Hank Allison, a character it’s tempting to read as a stand-in for Dubus himself. “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” is a first-person account from Hank’s best friend Jack of his affair with Hank’s wife Edith, and then in “Adultery” Edith catalogues in detail all the ways Hank pushed her to divorce. Only in “Finding A Girl” do we hear from Hank himself, as if Dubus wants to present the reader with all the evidence against his protagonist before allowing Hank to make his case. Together, these pieces chronicle a deeply flawed marriage with refreshingly sincere and emotionally generous prose. This is a writer able to use words like “love,” “faith,” “heart,” “soul,” and “tenderness” without so much as a wink, because the narratives he composes seem to restore their luster.

Writing in 1990 for the New York Times Book Review, Vivian Gornick compassionately critiqued one of the most revered microgenres of American short fiction, a school she termed the “Tenderhearted Men.” “There’s a certain kind of American story,” Gornick wrote, “that is characterized by a laconic surface and a tight-lipped speaking voice.”

The narrator in this story has been made inarticulate by modern life. Vulnerable to his own loneliness, he is forced into hard-boiled self-protection. His inexpressiveness is eloquent: the poetry of strong emotion trapped in confused and disintegrating times. Yet he longs for things to be other than they are. He yearns, in fact, for tender connection. Just behind the leanness and coolness of the prose lies the open—but doomed—expectation that romantic love saves. Settings vary and regional idioms intrude, but almost always it is men and women together that is being written about.

The form Gornick is referring to was originated by Ernest Hemingway in the early twentieth-century, and imitated since by American writers from Cormac McCarthy to Joan Didion. Gornick focused on three critically lauded writers in particular—Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus—whom she identified as Hemingway’s direct successors, masters of the men-and-women-together dynamic, “the most complex and least well known of the three” being Dubus.

Gornick correctly identifies “Adultery” as Dubus’s “masterpiece.” First published in the Sewanee Review in Winter 1977, and later that year in his second collection, Adultery & Other Choices, “Adultery” burns with eerie verisimilitude, and Dubus claimed it was the hardest thing he ever had to write. In the introduction to a 2004 reissue of the three novellas, his son Andre Dubus III recounts an incident that occurred “less than a year before Dad died,” in which a friend of his father produced an old photograph of him sitting at his desk, seemingly lost in thought. “You look mean,” the friend said, to which Dubus, sixty-two years old and wheelchair-bound, replied: “‘I was writing “Adultery” then.’ And his voice,” Dubus III says, “was like a man’s recalling a battle he was lucky to have survived at all.”

In her essay, Gornick lauds Dubus for his excellent prose and “sympathetic detachment,” but asserts that his fiction is “soaked in nostalgia . . . for an idea of men and women together that is evaporating now—and, for many of us, can’t dry up fast enough.” The idea she’s talking about, “the open—but doomed—notion that romantic love saves,” provides the premise for nearly all conflict in the fiction of the three “Tenderhearted Men.” Their descriptions of failed relationships are not investigations of what we’re really talking about when we talk about love, but in fact represent a veiled, regressive longing “for things to be other than they are.”

Gornick’s sticking point here seems to be a lack of development on the part of male protagonists: when their relationships fail, they are merely disappointed; they can’t or won’t ask why. Their idea of marriage is wrapped up in unsustainable notions of possession and subservience that they refuse to challenge. Instead of being “startled into another posture,” the protagonist “feels only sad and bad.” Outside of the box that the tenderhearted men have written themselves into, though, modern lovers are living out new dynamics all the time: “The struggle,” Gornick writes, “has brought men-and-women-together into a new place; puzzling and painful, true, but new nonetheless. In the country of these stories not only is that place not on the map, it’s as though the territory doesn’t exist.”

There’s an interesting passage near the beginning of “Adultery” that Gornick quotes at length in her essay, but fails to engage fully. Edith Allison, the novella’s protagonist, is hosting a cocktail party for her husband Hank’s academic friends and their female companions. She watches Hank flirt with a young woman he later admits is his lover, and in a bemused, offhand way, comes to a revelation about Hank’s internalized misogyny. “Hank needed and loved men,” she realizes, “and when he loved them it was because of what they thought and how they lived. He did not measure women that way; he measured them by their sexuality and good sense.” Hank may indeed “love” his wife, but it is a patronizing, self-serving love, one that allows him to have sex with other women outside his marriage. Edith has reluctantly convinced herself to accept this state of affairs only because this, she believes, is just how things are, how a marriage has to work.

As Gornick notes, “The reader can see early on that the marriage in ‘Adultery’ will come to disaster. Without genuine connection—that is, connection of the mind or spirit—sexual feeling wears itself out.” Then she stipulates that “neither Mr. Dubus nor his characters see what the reader sees.” But “Adultery” is about Edith’s journey toward that very realization. Her recognition of the shallowness of Hank’s love comes at the beginning of the piece, and Edith at this point hasn’t even felt the sting of his first affair. As the novella progresses, Hank’s misogyny and infidelity push her away by degrees until she has her own affair with a priest named Joe Ritchie. With Joe she talks about her adulterous marriage, and he opens her eyes to the awfulness of her circumstance; and by recognizing the injustice of her situation, Joe helps Edith realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. When Joe subsequently becomes terminally ill, and Edith’s companionship is his sole consolation as his final days come to pass, she realizes how sustainably vital love can be, and how flippant Hank has been with his. One of the last things she reveals to Joe, at the close of the novella, is her decision to divorce Hank.

In “Adultery,” the investigation of Hank’s limitations as a husband does not come from the “Tenderhearted Man” in the story, but from his wife. Here Dubus isn’t merely holding a mirror up to his flaws, he is viewing them from outside himself. He’s exhibiting a quality possessed by only the greatest writers of fiction: a capacity for empathy large enough to impart parallax. The place Edith comes to at the end of “Adultery” is indeed “puzzling and painful”—she’s leaving her husband, and her only fulfilling romance has ended tragically. But the struggle has brought her into a new place, outside the bounds of Hank’s outdated notions of married life. It’s not an easy place to be, but it exists nonetheless, and it is Dubus, by way of Edith’s subjectivity, who has found it.

In her introduction to volume one of Godine’s new editions, Ann Beattie writes, “Dubus’s stories question the status quo. Actually, they catch it and break its neck, even those times they ostensibly put it back together. Everything looks the same, but if you were to lift it, you’d feel the inherent flaw.” In another writer’s hands, Edith’s decision at the end of “Adultery” might have read as a bleak pronouncement about the futility of marriage in modern life. But in the context of Edith’s development over the course of the novella, it instead feels like an unlikely victory of love over cynicism. Her experience of Joe’s love in the face of mortality helps her conclude that the love we make matters, as do the people with whom we make it.

But as Beattie says, everything looks the same. In “Finding a Girl in America,” we watch both Hank and Edith wallowing in brief, repetitive flings. By the end of the novella it seems as though Hank has finally decided to take responsibility for his impulsive sexual behaviors—he proposes to someone ostensibly for love, rather than to justify a pregnancy—but the object of his affection is one of his undergraduate students, a woman half his age. Just from the novella’s title we hear his condescension; the reader senses that this is someone whom Hank will use to cure his loneliness, not someone he can form a genuine connection with, someone he considers an equal.

Like the fictional Hank Allison, Dubus was a fiction professor at Bradford College in Massachusetts who had many short-lived affairs with students half his age. The power imbalance here is unsettling, and despite Dubus’s formidable talents as both a storyteller and moral investigator, the reader struggles to shake the queasiness this autobiographical information imparts. As Richard Russo writes in his introduction to volume two, “Context that we cannot square with belief has a way of quickly becoming toxic, because once we know something it’s impossible to unknow it or to talk ourselves out of it. We understand, intellectually, that great artists are not always good people, but we still want them to be and somehow manage to feel betrayed when they aren’t.”

Russo’s introduction is vital to a posthumous reconsideration of Dubus, not only for its straightforward reckoning with the writer’s biography but also for the admiration with which he views the work itself. Like Dubus did with his characters’ predicaments, Russo approaches this complicated situation unapologetically: it would be dishonest to dismiss the late master’s work on account of his often regrettable behavior, just as it would be dishonest to excuse that behavior on account of the work’s quality. Russo doesn’t engage the myth that an artist’s bad behavior is of a piece with their brilliance, but we get the sense that, if willing to deeply investigate Dubus’s flaws, we might just learn something. After all, we read fiction not to find out how things should be, but how they actually are. We read Dubus, Russo says, to find out what happens if and when “love easily trumps both reason and morality.”

“The Winter Father” and “Going Under,” two longish stories centered around a character named Peter Jackman, also take place in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and share some characters with the “Adultery” novellas. Peter, for instance, was one of the lovers Edith took in “Adultery” before she met Joe Ritchie. But unlike Hank Allison, Peter learns from his mistakes. In these stories we might just find what Gornick found lacking in the work of the Tenderhearted Men: a less sentimental, more self-aware “fundamental text on men and women together.”

We meet Peter, at the beginning of “The Winter Father,” just as he and his wife are telling their children that they plan on getting a divorce. The story begins with fairy-tale-like compression and simplicity: “The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.” Unlike the novellas, these stories uniformly take a close-third perspective on one main character. Peter is a failed actor who now works as a radio DJ; his pop-culture frame of reference leads him to impose received, romantically kitschy narratives onto a life that he senses is falling apart. Even his dialogue, Beattie points out, feels lifted from an old Hollywood romance: “Come with me, Miranda,” he tells one of his too-young lovers. “You love me. We’ll make it. Come now, baby, come now . . .”

In “The Winter Father,” the reader, hears all the lies Peter tells himself as he tries to learn how to be a good father in a divorced family. At one point he considers adopting a policy of uninhibited honesty with his children, talking over his feelings of loneliness and inadequacy with them, before realizing, alone again in his apartment, “My God . . . I was going to have a Goddamn therapy session with my own children.” Later, he brings a woman he picked up at the neighborhood bar along on a trip to Boston with the kids; the kids like his new girlfriend and the attention she gives them, and that night he tells her, “This is the happiest day I’ve had since the marriage ended.” But, going home, he realizes once again that the feeling was a temporary illusion at best, that he’d “put together a family for the day.” The story ends not with absolution of his parental failure, but a moment of transitory grace. On the first warm day after a long winter, Peter takes his kids to the beach and wrings a small degree of acceptance from them: “Divorce kids go to the beach more than married ones,” his daughter says, holding her father’s hand. “I wish it was summer all year round.” Like the summer, like Peter’s happy day in Boston, the warmth that the family feels in this moment will pass. But as Beattie observed to me in a recent correspondence, “Dubus wishes these people well. He feels fondly about them—at least, it’s with an image of unity that he ends. The reader would have to view the trio fondly—on a summer day that exists as a winter’s fairy tale.”

In “Going Under,” Peter’s kids have moved across the country with their mother, and the tales he tells himself to ward off his “demons,” shorthand for his depression, are entirely stripped away. He keeps the radio on when he leaves the house so he won’t have to come home to silence. He runs miles in the cold until his lungs ache. He pushes away his engaged young lover Miranda with jealous and desperate confessions: “I spend twenty-three hours every day getting in shape for that one hour when I might go under,” he tells her. “Is that what scares you?”

That kind of talk would scare anyone, but in spite of himself Peter manages, once Miranda leaves him, to find someone with whom he shares some common ground. Peter meets Jo when she enters a contest at the radio station where he works:

In the fall the station had a contest with one hundred winners: the wives who wrote the best letters telling why they should leave their husbands at home and go to a New England Patriot football game. All my life I’ve been watching men, she wrote. When I was a very little girl I watched boys throwing rocks and beating each other up . . . When I was a teen-ager I watched them playing football and basketball . . . I watched them drive off in cars . . . I watched them go into the service and I watched them come home strutting and winking about their adventures. I always believed when I got married it would be my turn. My husband would watch me. He doesn’t. He watches football on television. If I’m going to spend my life watching men who aren’t watching me, then at least once it should be fun, and I should be able to dress up and go out and do it. Maybe my husband will see me on television and then he can watch me watching.

Needless to say, Peter goes to the game to meet her. In due course, they begin an affair and eventually Jo leaves her husband (this is a Dubus story, after all). But this pairing feels different, in that there is a genuine connection between the two divorcees—they’re on an equal plane. As Peter watches Jo watch the football game, he recognizes in her a desperation that he feels within himself—something akin to what Hank Allison, in “Finding a Girl in America,” called “the loneliness of not being fully known.” Peter and Jo express that loneliness in different ways: Jo is “bitter” and “defiant,” whereas Peter is scared and weak, but each one’s knowledge of what the other has been through allows them to care for each other in ways that their past lovers could not. Peter keeps himself available and comes over when Jo calls, and in turn, when Peter’s demons terrify him to the point that he’s unable to step outside his front door, Jo offers to come get him. On that demon-filled night, when Peter finally gets to Jo’s and “lies beside her, this sad woman whom tonight he is learning to love” (italics mine), he tells her “You and I. We’re what’s left over, after the storm.”

Andre Dubus wrote about the migrations of love—how it comes to us, where it goes when it dies, and how we go on afterward. Usually his stories aren’t about healthy love, or queer love for that matter. They’re about middle-aged men who lust after women half their age and men who mistake relief for love. They’re about young women struggling to escape shotgun marriages, servicemen who love the Marines more than their wives, and Marine widows figuring out how to mourn marriages that weren’t very loving in the first place. The dynamics they move within are largely outdated; some already were at the time they were written. But the trappings of traditional masculinity and femininity, the problems of possession and jealousy, and the countless other distortions these characters work through have not disappeared. If anything, Dubus’s stories, collected in these two remarkable and important volumes—with a third, The Cross-Country Runner, coming this month—serve as a beautiful model of romantic mistakes once made, a barometer of how far we have or have not come in relations between men and women together. Several storms may have passed since they were written, but more are sure to come.

Walt Evans is a former editorial assistant at the Sewanee Review.

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