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Characterized as a Southerner who seldom writes about the South, Andre Dubus is known for his realistic fiction, which explores the desires, disillusionment, and moral dilemmas of contemporary American society. He is also noted for his deft creation of believable characters in everyday circumstances. Critics particularly acknowledge Dubus’s realistic portrayal of the thoughts and emotions of his female protagonists.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Bayou Country
Andre Dubus (the family pronounces the name “Duhbuse”) was born on August 11, 1936, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, of Cajun Irish stock. The son of his namesake, Andre Dubus Sr., a civil engineer who loved golf and smoked a great deal, and Katherine Burke Dubus, who listened to broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera on winter Saturday afternoons, Andre grew up with his two sisters in the bayou country around Baton Rouge and Lafayette. His child hood was spent in lower-middle-class circumstances. He attended the Christian Brothers’ Cathedral High School and, upon graduation in 1954, he enrolled at McNeese State College, earning his BA in English in 1958.
In 1958, having married Patricia Lowe in February, he accepted a second lieutenant’s commission in the marines. This same year saw the birth of his first child, Suzanne, and in each of the next three succeeding years another child was born: Andre, Jeb, and Nicole. Abroad, political violence in South Vietnam was escalating and would soon lead to an increased presence of U.S. armed forces in the area.
Breaking into the Literary Arena
In 1963, the same year his father died of cancer at age fifty-nine, Dubus, now a captain, resigned his military commission to take his family to the University of Iowa, where he studied writing. This career change occurred just as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating. Dubus had been writing stories since he was nineteen, and in 1963 he succeeded at breaking into print in the Sewanee Review with ”The Intruder.”
With an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he headed with his family back to Louisiana for a year’s teaching in Thibodaux before going north to Bradford College in Massachusetts. Until 1984, Dubus taught writing and literature at Bradford College. During this time his first marriage ended, and he would marry twice more, first, to Tommie Gail Cotter in June 1975, a marriage that ended childless three years later, and then in 1979 to a woman many years his junior, Peggy Rambach, who gave birth to two children, Cadence in 1982 and Madeleine in 1987, the final year of their marriage. While at Bradford College, Dubus published his only novel, The Lieutenant (1967), and several stories in prestigious quarterlies.
Confronting Catholic Traditions
Five years after Martha Foley chose the Dubus story ”If They Knew Yvonne” for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 1970, Dubus published Separate Flights (1975), his first collection of stories. ”If They Knew Yvonne” is a retrospective first person narration that also draws on Dubus’s youth. Writing during a period when the Catholic Church in America was beginning to loosen its authoritarian strictures as a result of the Second Vatican Council, the story ends hopefully with a whispered hymn of praise to human vitality and common sense. In addition to exposing what he perceived as Catholicism’s bias against women, the story reflects the moral dilemma Dubus confronted in deciding to abandon church teaching and to use birth control.
In addition to the title story and ”If They Knew Yvonne,” this volume includes the novella ”We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” which, together with the novellas ”Adultery” (1977) and ”Finding a Girl in America” (1980) was to become the tripartite saga of Terry and Jack Linhart and Edith and Hank Allison—two married couples employed in academia whose circumstances resemble closely those of the Dubus family—in the 1984 collection We Don’t Live Here Anymore.
Success as an Author
In 1977, Dubus was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and he published the well-received Adultery and Other Choices (1977), a collection of nine short stories, and the novella ”Adultery.” Of the stories, ”The Fat Girl” has subsequently achieved the most prominence in anthologies. The following year, Dubus received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and in 1979 he saw his story ”The Pitcher” placed in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards.
On the whole, reviews of Dubus’s work were largely favorable in the 1970s, and his reputation in the 1980s continued to grow as writers such as John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates brought him to the attention of a growing readership. The Last Worthless Evening (1986) and Selected Stories (1988) led to Dubus’s introduction into college literature classes and have stirred critical interest.
In 1984, Dubus published Voices from the Moon, a novella that later was collected in We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Selected Stories: Voices from the Moon. It is told in the third person but in the limited-omniscient mode so that different sections of the story reveal the minds of different members of the Stowe family, who have been dispersed through marriage and divorce. Although the complications of the story transcend the ordinary turmoil of middle-class divorce in America, they still reflect society’s mores in a general way just as they must mirror Dubus’s own problems: he was married at the time to a wife the age of his own children.
Early on the morning of July 23, 1986, Dubus was struck by a car near Wilmington, Massachusetts, where he was assisting a distressed motorist on Interstate 93. Accounts of this accident, which resulted in injuries that caused him to lose a leg and require a wheelchair, appear in his well-received volume of personal essays Broken Vessels. Four months after the accident his wife left him, and five days after that she ”came with a court order and a kind young Haverhill police officer and took Cadence and Madeleine away.” After that he suffered writing blocks but continued to work and to lecture, often in pain. A show of support, both moral and financial, by such disparate American writers as Ann Beattie, E. L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Gail Godwin, and Richard Yates proved enormously gratifying to the dispirited Dubus, as did a MacArthur Fellowship he received when his morale had reached a particularly low point. In the years after the shaking events of 1986, he came to view the accident as a transcendent experience that allowed him to understand more deeply the nature of human suffering, forgiveness, and love. He remained a practicing and believing Cath olic, although he had to modify for himself a few of the church’s strictures.
In April 1996 Andre Dubus won the Rea Award for the Short Story, recognizing his career achievement. That same year, he published Dancing after Hours—a New York Times Notable Book of the Year—and, then, in 1998, Meditations from a Moveable Chair. In 1999, Dubus died from a heart attack at the age of sixty-two. His son, Andre Dubus III, is also an author.
Works in Literary Context
Like his contemporaries Russell Banks and Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus is often perceived as a ”son of Ernest Hemingway,” a judgment that would likely please neither Hemingway nor Dubus but one that serves as a rough frame of reference nonetheless. He often writes in a prose style made familiar by Hemingway—a style that might be called nonexperimental, plain American style.
Dubus’s work was influenced by the cultural climate of the 1970s and 1980s, his debilitating accident, and the difficulties he faced in his personal relationships.
Compassion for Ordinary People
In depicting ordinary people—single mothers, divorced husbands, and victims of failing marriages—Dubus treats in a freshly original manner a host of problems that occupied American minds in the 1970s and 1980s. But merely to list the issues raised in his stories runs the danger of making Dubus’s writing sound trendy, slick, or superficial—all qualities he avoided. Abortion, drugs, child and wife abuse, racism, rape, anorexia, divorce, birth control, exercise and body building, and the aftermath of Vietnam find expression in his stories.
Andre Dubus writes of an America of vanishing expectations, a country slipping from postwar confidence, with eroded small cities where jobs are hard to find and pay is minimum wage. In his works, the middle class has lost direction as marriages and the church begin to fail. In stories such as ”Falling in Love” and ”The Veteran,” his main characters have returned from war and find themselves in what they see as less than ideal relationships—not because of war, but because of life after the war.
Works in Critical Context
Dubus has received generally favorable critical attention throughout his career. His ability to explore the ethical contradictions of society through the perspective of ordinary people whose everyday lives are laced with ambivalence and moral conflict has been particularly noted. Although some critics have found Dubus’s work powerful and relevant but ”depressing to read,” as Charles Deemer remarked, or his characters ”resolutely ungiving and uncharming,” as Joyce Carol Oates asserted, Dubus’s sensitive portrayal of the inner lives of both men and women in his fiction and his craftsmanship of style and technique have merited critical praise. Many reviewers have remarked on the impact of Dubus’s accident on his writing, praising the wisdom and grace with which he recovered from and managed the devastating changes it brought to his life.
Selected Stories was greeted with enthusiastic reviews in the New Republic and the New York Times Book Review, as well as receiving favorable notices in the Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman. Writing for the New Republic, Anne Tyler praised Dubus for truly understanding his characters, saying that ”he feels morally responsible for his characters, and it’s this sense of responsibility that gives his work its backbone.” Tyler felt that Ray Yarborough of ”A Pretty Girl” becomes ”even likable,” despite his myriad moral failings—an opinion that demonstrates the sorcery Dubus can work. In the New Statesman, Kirsty Milne reminded readers of Dubus’s ”eloquence,” a quality undervalued by critics more likely to talk of his ”voice” or ”moral vision” or ”unabashed humanism.”
- Kennedy, Thomas E. Andre Dubus: A Study of Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
- Wolff, Tobias. Introduction to Dubus’s Broken Vessels. Boston: Godine, 1991.
- Breslin, John B. ”Playing Out the Patterns of Sin and Grace: The Catholic Imagination of Andre Dubus.” Commonweal 115 (December 2, 1988): 652-656.
- Dahlin, Robert. ”Andre Dubus.” Publishers Weekly 226 (October 12, 1984): 56-57.
- Doten, Patti. ”Andre Dubus: Pain Yes, Rage No.” Boston Globe (August 19, 1991): 33, 36.
- Hathaway, Dev. ”A Conversation with Andre Dubus.” Black Warrior Review 9 (Spring 1983): 86-103.
- Kornbluth, Jesse. ”The Outrageous Andre Dubus.” Horizon 28 (April 1985): 16-20.
- Nathan, Robert. ”Interview with Andre Dubus.” Bookletter 3 (February 14, 1987): 14-15.
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