Andre Dubus, the great short story writer, would have been 79 years old today. I can't recall exactly why, a few years ago, I picked up a copy of his Selected Stories. It proved one of those books that fell apart from frequent use: Read over and over, passed along to friends, coffee and whiskey spilled on pages, tobacco smudged in the margins. Eventually I gathered all of his individual collections of novellas and stories, and his two books of essays, too. There are few writers who mean more to me.
Dubus's prose was lean and elegant, and had a rhythm and musicality that came from the attention he paid to how it sounded when read aloud. He possessed a gift for the striking phrase or paragraph, those lines that are encountered with all the force of revelation. Consider this passage from his short story, "A Father's Story," about the meaning of rituals — in this case, the Catholic Mass:
Each morning I try, each morning I fail, and know that always I will be a creature who, looking at Father Paul and the altar, and uttering prayers, will be distracted by scrambled eggs, horses, the weather, and memories and daydreams that have nothing to do with the sacrament I am about to receive. I can receive, though: the Eucharist, and also, at Mass and at other times, moments and even minutes of contemplation. But I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.
The paean to ritual in this passage points to Dubus's earthy, incarnational religious faith. He understood the holiness of the ordinary. For me, reared in the disenchanted and disembodied wasteland of non-denominational Protestantism, no aspect of Dubus's writing resonated more.
I don't mean that he offered didactic theology lessons on the relationship between nature and grace. Instead, he described cooking food and the splash of whiskey on ice and the feeling in your stomach when you're in the weight room with a hangover. And these depictions somehow were more than apt observations; they were the product of a sacramental vision of reality. This passage from one of his very finest essays, "On Charon's Wharf," gets at that vision:
This morning I received the sacrament I still believe in: at seven-fifteen the priest elevated the host, then the chalice, and spoke the words of the ritual, and the bread became flesh, the wine became blood, and minutes later I placed on my tongue the taste of forgiveness and love that affirmed, perhaps celebrated, my being alive, my being mortal. This has nothing to do with immortality, with eternity; I love the earth too much to contemplate a life apart from it, although I believe in that life. No, this has to do with mortality and the touch of flesh, and my belief in the sacrament of the Eucharist is simple: without touch, God is a monologue, an idea, a philosophy; he must touch and be touched, the tongue on flesh, and that touch is the result of monologues, the idea, the philosophies which led to faith; but in the instant of the touch there is no place for thinking, for talking; the silent touch affirms all that, and goes deeper: it affirms the mysteries of love and mortality.
Or ponder this passage, from an essay in Meditations from a Moveable Chair, written after a traffic accident in 1986 left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life:
On most mornings after my accident, I did not have the energy to go to Mass, then prepare meals and write and try alone to run a household. A priest brought me the Eucharist when he had time to, and once he said: ‘Every day you are receiving Communion of desire; other people are receiving it for you.’ So the Last Supper did not take place on one night in one room, and to eat God’s love, we do not even have to open our mouths; we can be walking, sorrowful and confused, with a friend; or working on whatever our boat is, fishing for whatever it is we fish for; we can be running naked, alone in the dark. The Eucharist is with us, and it is ordinary. To me, that is its essential beauty: we receive it with wandering minds, and distracted flesh, in the same way we receive the sun and sky, the moon and earth, and breathing.
Perhaps this is why Dubus also was one of our greatest chroniclers of domestic life: he knew the import of the small detail, and was especially attentive to the private rules and particular dynamics of relationships and families. Dubus wrote about affairs and cheating and divorce with great power and realism. He knew we all are strangely mingled creatures, possessing goodness but also beset by addiction, loneliness, and rage. Which is to say he knew that it was in small ways that we so often wound each other, and that love was proven not with the grand gesture but through a more quotidian steadfastness. His own wounds, the experience of having his physical vigor taken from him, reinforced this:
Living in the world as a cripple allows you to see more clearly the crippled hearts of some people whose bodies are whole and sound. All of us, from time to time, suffer this crippling. Some suffer it daily and nightly; and while most of us, nearly all of us, have compassion and love in our hearts, we cannot or will not see these barely visible wounds of other human beings, and so cannot or will not pick up the telephone or travel to someone’s home or writer a note or make some other seemingly trifling gesture to give someone what only we, and God, can give: an hour’s respite, or a day’s, or a night’s; and sometimes more than respite: sometimes joy.
It should be no surprise, then, to find Dubus articulating his commitment to the short story this way:
I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice. We can sit all night with our friend while he talks about the end of his marriage, and what we finally get is a collection of stories about passion, tenderness, misunderstanding, sorrow, money; those hours and days and moments when he was absolutely married, whether he and his wife were screaming at each other, or sulking about the house, or making love. While his marriage was dying, he was also working, spending evening with friends, rearing children; but those are other stories. Which is why, days after hearing a painful story by a friend, we see him and say: How are you? We know that by now he may have another story to tell, or he may be in the middle of one, and we hope it is joyful.
Yes, and perhaps more than that: the best short stories can teach us how to live, how to be more alive. No short story writer has done that for me like Andre Dubus.