The morning after Andre Dubus III's sister tells the family that her husband has hit her - so hard she thought he'd broken her eardrum - Dubus's father sits down and writes an entire short story in one sitting about a young wife whose drunk husband beats her. The story is so beautiful, Dubus cannot shake his sense of simultaneous pride and shame - pride that his father had created something so elegant and powerful so effortlessly, and shame at the way he'd stolen his sister's painful experience for his own art.
"How could art truly help people?" Dubus asks. "Did it feed them? Clothe them? Keep them warm in the winter? Did it put a gun in their hands to fend off their oppressors?"
This is the paradox at the heart of Dubus's memoir, which recounts the lives of these two fine writers, their strained relationship, and their writings.
During a brief period of his childhood, when his father was studying at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Dubus remembers laughter in the house, his father's vivid storytelling, and parties with the likes of Kurt Vonnegut in attendance. No matter how poor his parents were, the parties - and the dancing and the poetry reading - went on. Dubus's parents separated when he was 10 and later divorced, his father leaving his mother for one of his students. From there through almost the rest of the book, the path to dignity for the younger Dubus lies not in art but violence. He and his three siblings grow up in poverty and crime. He is beaten up daily during his childhood so, as he grows, he begins bench-pressing in his basement and boxing at the gym, building up muscles to fight back. When his brother tries to commit suicide and his sister is raped, it's his fists that get him through the anger and hurt. Gradually, he descends into an uncontrollable violence. Though he never actually kills anyone, the sinister delight and pride he feels in hurting others is palpable in every fight.
When Dubus's father left, it's as if he took his art with him. But the older Dubus's world, though more refined, also bears something of the pathetic. He goes through several relationships, bringing the tally to three ex-wives and six children in all. Though he sees his first four children regularly, he remains naïve about how they live, shocked one time that his son had never been to a baseball game.
In the academic world where Andre Dubus senior holds an esteemed reputation as a writer, the younger Dubus is just a "townie"- uneducated, gruff, crude. It's a word he first overhears on his father's campus, where he studies off and on, and where people recognize him simply as Professor Dubus's son.
Whats notable about this memoir of a troubled boy's youth and coming of age is that one might expect a harshness in the voice of someone brought up in such brutal violence, and yet, there's an elegance and restraint throughout, even in moments of searing honesty. For example, that Dubus should harbor some resentment of his father is expected, but this remains subdued throughout the narrative and is powerful when it does surface, as when he felt a dark joy in breaking the news of his sister's rape to his father, as if to implicate him. Even more remarkable is the empathy Dubus expresses in almost the same breath, knowing that his father, too, was always poor; that nearly all the money he made was given over to child support payments (including to Dubus's mother) and that he did the best he could.
As the memoir progresses, Dubus's father becomes an increasingly intriguing character. Even Dubus himself can't help becoming fascinated by his father's contradictions - by the desperate way in which he lives and yet the deep religious faith that sustains him; by his naivety about his children's lives and yet his great, great compassion for people. "Whenever I read his work," Dubus writes, "I was pulled easily into a vision that was both bleak and redemptive." In both father and son's lives, we see that art can be tragic, and violence can be transformed into beauty.
It's when Dubus begins to write his own stories that he starts to find some of that redemption himself. Writing becomes an outlet for his rage and anger and hurt, and the physical force he once turned to is now channeled into a power on the page. Writing also becomes a way to connect with his father. As an adult, Dubus finally finds in his father the kind of mentor and friend he needs. And when his father loses the use of his legs in a tragic accident late in his life, confining him to a wheelchair, Dubus also becomes the son he never had the chance to be. When his father dies, Dubus and his brother decide to build a coffin for him together. Though both Dubuses' lives are marked with pain, difficulty, and tragedy, both men also have a deep capacity for humanity that not only saves them but, in the end, fuels their art.
This review was originally published in March 2011, and has been updated for the February 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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