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Andre Dubus III resisted the idea of being an author for many years because his father, Andre Dubus, who died in 1999, continues to be well recognized as one of America’s best short-fiction writers, and the younger Dubus simply wanted to do something different. The younger Dubus has held a variety of jobs—bounty hunter, private investigator, carpenter, bartender, actor, and, finally, teacher—but, as he told Oprah Winfrey in a 2001 television interview, ”Growing up, I never wanted to be a writer. I found that when I did start writing, I felt more like myself than I’ve ever felt. I had to write to be me.” The Dubus stock has had a significant impact upon the writing of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
In and Out of Literature
Andre Dubus III (the family pronounces the name “Duhbuse”) was born on September 11, 1959, in Oceanside, California, to Andre Dubus Jr. and his wife, social worker Patricia Lowe. Dubus’s parents divorced when he was eleven years old, but he maintained a strong relationship with his father. As a result of his parents’ divorce, however, the family lived in poverty for many years. After high school Dubus attended Bradford College in Massachusetts and earned an associate of arts degree in 1979, and then continued his studies at the University of Texas at Austin, drawn there by its progressive curriculum and atmosphere. In 1981 he earned his B.A. in sociology and political science. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Massachusetts for a year to, as he says in an interview with Robert Birnbaum, ”get out of the books a bit.”
In Massachusetts he worked in construction and boxed at the Lynn Boys Club. At the time, he was dating one of his father’s students. When she told Dubus that she had a crush on a classmate because she was impressed by his writing, Dubus read the classmate’s manuscript and became inspired to write. He began writing a short story to impress the girlfriend, but he ended up enjoying writing so much that he continued for his own sake.
Dubus initially planned to earn a Ph.D. in Marxist social science at the University of Wisconsin and then to attend law school. He went to Wisconsin but stayed just four days, quickly realizing that he did not want to be a sociologist. He then returned to Texas briefly and then went to Colorado for a year, where he worked at a prison while he continued writing. His first published story, ”Forky,” appeared in Playboy in 1984 and won the National Magazine Award a year later.
Life into Fiction
In 1989 Dubus married Fontaine Dollas, a dancer and choreographer. In 1989 he also published his first book, a collection of short fiction called The Cage Keeper and Other Stories. In it Dubus draws extensively on his life experience, from working in a Colorado corrections facility in the early 1980s to growing up during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. The Vietnam War was a deeply unpopular conflict in which American forces battled on the side of the South Vietnamese against the communist North Vietnamese in order to prevent the spread of communism in Asia. The volume includes the prize-winning ”Forky,” which chronicles the experiences of an inmate as he moves from prison to civilian life and goes on a date with a woman. Other stories involve a troubled Vietnam veteran’s ill-fated relationship with a younger lover and a camping trip undertaken by two children and their stepfather, newly estranged from their mother. Dubus’s first book delves into many troubling sides of contemporary society: urban violence, decaying relationships, loss of community and family, loss of identity, and unfulfilled dreams.
Like his first book, Dubus’s second work, Bluesman, which appeared in 1993, garnered little public or critical attention. This introspective novel differs from his first collection, however, which was filled with much more action. Bluesman is a coming-of-age story in which sixteen-year-old Leo Sutherland learns about life, the blues, and Marxism during the late 1960s and early 1970s. For many young people in this era, life in America demanded soul-searching. The Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam and the anti-war movement, and the counterculture of drugs, music, and free love all caused young Americans to question their own values and decide upon their own identity. Never before had wide spread social movements caused such a generational rift between old and young. The resulting shift in values and norms has made a huge impact on twentieth-century literature as well as on Dubus’s writing.
Oprah, the Movies, and Success at Last
House of Sand and Log, Dubus’s third work, took him four years to write and was turned down by more than twenty publishers before it was finally accepted and published in 1999. The novel concerns a tragic conflict between a mentally unstable American woman and an Iranian immigrant who buys her house after it is seized for nonpayment of taxes. Dubus’s inspiration for the novel came from his experiences with the Iranian family of a woman he had dated for several years while pursuing his undergraduate degree and from a newspaper clipping that detailed the story of an older woman who was wrongly evicted from her home for not paying taxes (which she in fact did not owe). The man who bought her house at auction was named
Mohammed, which sparked Dubus’s interest in incorporating the Iranian expatriate element into the novel.
Although the novel did well after publication, moving to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, it became a publishing phenomenon after being chosen by talk show personality Oprah Winfrey as an Oprah Book Club selection in 2000. Sales of the novel went from 165,000 copies to more than 1,700,000. In 2003, House of Sand and Fog was made into a feature film directed by Vadim Perelman and starring Oscar-winning actors Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley.
Inside the Mind of a Terrorist
Dubus followed up House of Sand and Fog with the 2008 novel The Garden of Last Days a novel set in 2001 and inspired by reports that one of the terrorist hijackers responsible for the September 11,2001, attacks on the United States visited a Florida strip club while in the state taking flying lessons. The novel, like House of Sand and Fog, is a tragedy that springs from chance interactions and seemingly banal coincidences.
Dubus lives with his family in Newbury, Massachusetts, and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
Works in Literary Context
Dubus’s work belongs to the tradition of American literary realism, a style that formed in the nineteenth century with writers like Mark Twain and Henry James and persisted alongside the many stylistic movements that changed the face of American literature, from Modernism to postmodernism. At its origins, American literary realism aimed at an honest representation of life as it was lived by Americans at all levels of society, with whatever grit, suffering, and struggle made that representation accurate. While the movement’s philosophical edge might have been dulled by the end of the nineteenth century, writers have continued to portray life as it is actually lived, by real people. From writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Katherine Anne Porter, through Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and J. D. Salinger, to John Updike, Andre Dubus (Dubus Ill’s father), and Joyce Carol Oates, the practice of representing life’s powerful stories in plain, direct language has remained a powerful literary presence. Dubus’s novels and stories carry on this tradition, turning features of everyday life into the driving themes of the works themselves.
Works in Critical Context
The Cage Keeper and Other Stories
Dubus’s first published book, The Cage Keeper and Other Stories, received few reviews. Starr E. Smith of the Library Journal gave the collection an A grade, while the New York Times Book Review critic Deborah Solomon stated that it was an average book. A review in the Los Angeles Times described the collection as ”Darkly powerful stories of the American underclass: drifters, bikers, ex-cons and drop-outs.” Another reviewer from the Los Angeles Times, asserted that Dubus ”crafts powerful stories about people struggling to find something to affirm in the weary souls and bleak surroundings.” Given Dubus’s popularity following his novel House of Sand and Fog (1999), these stories may receive more critical attention in the future.
Bluesman, Dubus’s second published book, earned praise from some critics for its portrayal of the Vietnam War and war era: a Publishers Weekly review commented that ”Dubus . . . understands the rhythms of hard labor and the needs of the people who do it; the sensitivity and decency of his working-class heroes make them genuinely compelling and likeable.” Patrick Samway, in his review for America, asserted: ”Dubus deftly explores what he seems to know best: family life, music and searching for love.” With the publication of the Vintage Contemporary edition, one reviewer from the TLS: The Times Literary Supplement stated that the novel is ”written with a thoughtful eye that marks the casual detail of important events, although it often misses the mark in its assessments of what distance to keep in relation to adolescent preoccupations.”
House of Sand and Fog
Dubus received high praise for House of Sand and Fog. Even before the fanfare that comes with being named an Oprah book, critics had already heralded the novel. Larry Weissman asserted in Bold Type Magazine that ”Though their decisions are often infuriating, these characters are as real and involving as any in contemporary literature. Told with generous empathy, House of Sand and Fog is a powerful modern-day Greek tragedy that marks the arrival of a true literary star.” Richard Eder called the novel ”fine and prophetic” in his review in Newsday, yet he noticed two elements with which he takes issue: the ”code switching” of Colonel Behrani from Persian language to English, and the ”madness and violence” to which the book descends at the end. Ultimately, however, Eder praised the novel for its originality and integrity. Reba Leiding of Library Journal felt that the novel conveyed ”a hard-edged, cinematic quality, but unlike many movies, its outcome is unexpected.” Few if any critics wrote negative reviews of the novel, and House of Sand and Fog was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award in fiction.
- Eder, Richard. ”Strangers in a Strange Land.” Newsday, February 22, 1999.
- Kramer, Jerome V. ”Double Dubus.” Book, March/April 1999.
- Macgowan, James. ”Oprah Helps a Son Come into His Own” Ottawa Citizen, May 13, 2001.
- Markovits, Benjamin. ”Going to Truth City.” TLS: The Times Literary Supplement, September 21, 2001.
- Raksin, Alex. ”Fiction in Brief.” The Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1989.
- Smith, Starr E. Review of The Cage Keeper and Other Stories. Library Journal January 1, 1989.
- Solomon, Charles. Review of The Cage Keeper and Other Stories. The Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1990.
- Solomon, Deborah. ”In Short; Fiction”. The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1989.
- Birnbaum, Robert. ”Interview: Andre Dubus III.” Identity Theory/The Narrative Thread. Accessed September 23, 2008. http://www.identitytheory. com/people/birnbaum3.html
- Weissman, Larry. ”A Conversation with Andre Dubus III.” Bold Type. Accessed September 23, 2008. http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0300/dubus/interview.html.
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