Friday, April 17, 2015

"Now finally I know why I write this." Andre Dubus and the Essay Disguised as a Story

A week doesn't pass when I don't lament the loss of Andre Dubus, who died in 1999. His best stories powerfully dramatize ordinary people navigating loss, love, faith, and family, often tragically, as they struggle to behave their moral best in a complex, baffling, and brutal world. Dubus's sentences were never showy, never glittery with literary artifice; instead they were devastatingly simple (not simplistic), trading gaudy language for declarative statements and clear-eyed, virtually Naturalistic observations. He was a master of dialogue, too—believable, often terse and limited, as normal human conversation usually is. "A Father's Story" is one of the mammoth short stories of the century; "Killings," "The Fat Girl," many of Dubus's other stories are nearly equal its weight. These days I'm especially in love with "Rose," in part because it takes place in a dive, in part because it feels to me as an essay disguised as a story about an essaying mind.

"Rose," which first appeared in Ploughshares in 1985, and was collected in The Last Worthless Evening in 1997, is a long story narrated by a guy at a bar—by all accounts a regular there, the middle-aged drinker comfortable hanging with the local college kids as well as with other townies. Beery and warmly, he talks to himself, and us, about a lot of things, but mostly about Rose, a recent tavern regular, an older, vexed Catholic who one night relates to him the complicated, horrendous story of her marriage to a lout named Jim. In brief: one night, at the galling end point of years of abuse, Jim threw their young son against the wall of their apartment, breaking his arm. Rose, enraged and roused from the deadening years of her marriage, spirits the boy out of the apartment to the hospital. As she leaves, Jim sets fire to the apartment, endangering the couple's two daughters. Emboldened by something larger than herself, Rose dashes in to the blaze, rescues the girls, and moments later in the parking lot, runs over her husband repeatedly with her car. She's arrested, and is let off on charges of justifiable homicide; her children are removed from her custody and placed in foster homes. She never tries to locate them, choosing instead to drink herself and her grief, guilt, and sadness into abeyance. It's a gruesome, joyless account, full of unpleasant details, and the narrator, who has to imagine much of it, fills in in the narrative blanks that Rose can't remember, doesn't know, or won't bring herself to confess. At the end of the story, Rose leaves the bar, and the narrator's left to reflect on what he's been told.

What interests me is the story's point-of-view. Why did Dubus choose a nameless guy in a dive bar to relate Rose's story? After all, her narrative, loaded with tragedy and drama, neatly if grimly satisfies the narrative arc of beginning-middle-end, of climax and denouement, of flat and round characters, and could have successfully been told in third-person. I think that Dubus wanted to give us a narrator who's essaying the story and what about it matters, what about it engages him to explore further, to intuit links among other incidents, other people. "Fiction makes sense of imagined experience," Annie Dillard says. "Nonfiction makes sense of actual experience." I often refer to this distinction. In "Rose," Dubus has it both ways.

The end of the story is worth quoting. Earlier, the narrator talks about a weak and bullied boy from the University of Chicago whom he knew in the Marines. One night in the barracks, sleepwalking, the boy lifted an enormous locker over his head, a gesture he'd never make when awake, as he was too burdened by and self-conscious of his scrawny body and its limitations. He never learned of the feat; instead, he returned home thinking himself an embarrassing washout. Reflecting on this, the narrator says,
I hope that the man from Chicago has succeeded at something—love, work—that has allowed him to outgrow the shame of failure. I have often imagined him returning home a week early that summer, to a mother, to a father; and having to watch his father's face as the boy told him he had failed because he was weak. A trifling incident in a whole life time, you may say. Not true. It could have changed him forever, his life with other men, with women, with daughters, and especially sons. We like to believe that in this last quarter of the century, we know and are untouched by everything; yet it takes only a very small jolt, at the right time, to knock us off balance for the rest of our lives. Maybe—and I hope so—the boy learned what his body and will could do: some occurrence he did not have time to consider, something that made him act before he knew he was in action.
Maybe. The narrator's working through hopeful possibilities, as unlikely as they might be. "Like Rose." he continues, his thoughts focusing now. "Who volunteered to marry; even, to a degree, to practice rhythm, for her Catholic beliefs were not strong and deep, else she could not have so easily turned away from them after the third child, or even early in that pregnancy."
So the life she chose slowly turned on her, pressed against her from all sides, invisible, motionless, but with the force of wind she could not breast. She stood at the sink, holding the children’s glass. But then—and now finally I know why I write this, and what does stand out with unity—she reentered motherhood, and the unit we all must gain against human suffering. This is why I did not answer, at the bar, when she told me she did not deserve the children. For I believe she did, and does. She redeemed herself, with action, and with less than thirty minutes of it. But she could not see that, and still cannot. She sees herself in the laundromat, the supermarket, listlessly drunk in a nightclub where only her fingers on the table moved to the music. I see her young and strong and swift, wrapping the soaked blankets around her little girls, and hugging them to her, and running and spinning and running through the living room, on that summer night when she was touched and blessed by flames.
"Now finally I know why I write this." There's the essayistic moment in "Rose"—it comes at the end, naturally. This woman has confessed something virtually unutterable, and the story expands in the narrator's mind, changes him, charges him with the need to make sense of it. The occasional direct address to the reader, the conversational tone, and the constellation of connections the narrator makes—the boy in Chicago, volunteers for yellow fever in the Panama Canal, the strangers in the bar that night, events and people in his own life that remain unspoken, or unknown—are all hallmarks of the essay, borne of a generous and patient imaginative mind. The narrator, struck, certainly drunk, but genuinely moved, intellectually as well as emotionally, enacts David Lazar's great essayist's credo: "When I become interested in an idea, I want to know what I think of it—so I write essays."

Granted, most of us aren't told gripping, ready-made stories by quasi-friends in bars. (Wouldn't that be something if we were?) Regardless, the work was still left for the narrator to relate the story back to himself, to attempt to make sense of it (after Vivian Gornick), not only because of its dramatic urgency, but because of the insight it might possess. Earlier in the story the narrator describes himself this way: "I am fifty-one years old, yet I cannot feel I am getting older because I keep repeating the awakening experiences of a child: I watch and I listen, and I write in my journal, and each year I discover, with the awe of my boyhood, a part of the human spirit I had perhaps imagined, but never had seen or heard."

Is there, I wonder, a greater definition of an essayist?

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