Remembering Andre Dubus

Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.

Andre Dubus’ faith was necessary and deep: “I don’t know how somebody without a religious or philosophical background could exist in the world without despair,” he said in the 1990 NCR interview. “I rarely concentrate on a moment of anything,” he wrote once, “but writing and exercise and receiving Communion.”

His faith was without question Catholic – profoundly sacramental and confidently expressed. Quite simply, in the essays and even the fiction of Andre Dubus, readers will find some of the most impassioned, powerful words concerning the sacramental life, particularly Eucharist, to be found in contemporary spiritual writing.

Dubus wrote of a world permeated by God made visible in every action motivated by love: In a short story, “Out of the Snow,” a woman shops for groceries that her love will transform into meals: “Being a mother had taught her that sacraments were her work, and their number was infinite.” As Dubus himself makes a snack for his two young daughters, he reflects: “…the sandwiches are sacraments. Not the miracle of transubstantiation, but certaily parallel with it, moving in the same direction. If I could give my children my body to eat, again and again without losing it, my body like the loaves and fishes going endlessly into mouths and stomachs, I would do it.” This love we mediate to our fellow creatures is only possible because, as John writes, “He loved us first.” Dubus’ writing is infused with an awareness of this truth and the sensibility that since we are embodied creatures, it is through the concreteness of flesh and the earth that God’s grace touches us.

In “All the Time in the World,” a woman finally meets a man whom she can authentically love because of a simple mishap with a shoe after Mass. Later, “In her apartment she went to her closet and picked up the white shoe with the broken heel. She did not believe in fate, but she believed in gifts that came; they moved with angels and spirits in the air, were perhaps delivered by them.”

A character in another story, “The Timing of a Sin,” describes what stopped her from committing adultery: “It was the jeans that saved me. If I had been wearing a skirt I could’ve just pulled up. There wouldn’t have been those seconds when I was only touching my own skin. And you can’t be saved by jeans. So it was God, grace….”

So, Dubus writes, in the sacramental life of the Church, Christ comes to us in the Flesh because it is who we are, and the only way we can live within grace: “I need sacraments I can receive through my senses. I need God manifested as Christ, who ate and drank and suffered, and laughed. So I can dance with Him as the leaf dances in the breeze under the sun.”

A character in one of Dubus’ stories says, “Faith is believing that God believes in you.” Andre Dubus’ life and writing stand in witness to that truth. Despite, as his publisher noted after his death “grotesque hurdles thrown up at him at every turn,” he continued to live, and love and create. His understanding of and compassion for his own characters, despite their flaws and limitations, is expressive of a spirituality rooted in God’s passionate and unrelenting love for His creatures, offering the touch of grace no matter what place they have come to rest.

In an essay on writing, Dubus explains, ”at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if in public it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed.”

As are we blessed and nourished by the work and vision of Andre Dubus.

What the secular newspapers failed to emphasize, however, was Dubus’ faith – a deeply sacramental and incarnational Catholic spirituality that pervaded his work, strengthened him through almost unimaginable pain and loss, and was as concrete as the Eucharist:

“Since I was a boy, this sacrament has sustained my belief in God, who joined us here on earth to eat and drink and be joyful, to love and grieve, to suffer and die. For most of my life, I have tried to receive the Eucharist daily” Dubus wrote in an essay, “Bodily Mysteries” contained in his last collection, Meditations from a Moveable Chair (1998).

Andre Dubus (pronounced D00-byoose) was described in a 1998 interview on the website as “barrel chested and gray bearded, with wide open eyes and the weathered red face of a man who’s lived a full life.” That life began in 1936 in Lake Charles Louisiana. He was taught by the Christian Brothers, and after college, joined the Marines. After five and a half years in the service, Dubus enrolled in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and received a Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. In 1966, Dubus and his young family moved to Massachusetts, where he remained, teaching and writing until the end of his life.

That Dubus’ life did not end thirteen years earlier than it did is simply a miracle.

Late on the night of July 11, 1986, Dubus was driving from Boston to his home in Haverhill when he stopped to assist Luis and Luz Santiago, a brother and sister whose car had run over an abandoned motorcycle on the highway. As he walked the injured Luz to the side of the road, another car appeared, and swerved toward the group. Luis was killed, Luz survived because Dubus pushed her out of the way, and Dubus himself was critically injured.

“I do not remember leaving the ground my two legs stood on for the last instant in my life,” he wrote, “then moving through the air, over the car’s hood and windshield and roof, and falling on its trunk. I remember lying on my back on that trunk and asking someone: What happened?”

After months in the hospital, he was able to return to his home, but bound to a wheelchair because of the amputation of his left leg halfway through the knee and injuries to the right which rendered it useless.

Dubus wrote with unrelenting honesty about the effect the accident had on his life – the physical pain, the challenges of a life in which everything takes three times as long to accomplish, depression and countless losses, including a marriage. Loss and the finding of grace in the midst of it was an important element of Dubus’ fiction even before his accident and finds eloquent expression in his essays about his changed life, for example, in a reflection on the loss of his strength and perhaps his manhood as he is moved to tears in the presence of his female physical therapist:

“I said through my weeping: I’m not a man among men anymore and I’m not a man among women either… Then [the therapist] looked up at me. Her voice has much peace whose resonance is her own pain she has moved through and beyond. It’s in Jeremiah, she said. The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it, and makes a new vessel. You can’t make a new vessel out of a broken one. It’s time to find the real you.”

Dubus joked in a 1990 interview with the National Catholic Reporter that perhaps the accident was the work of a divine blue pencil, remarking that his work at the time was “getting excessive…. That’s probably why I got run over. God thought I needed some editing.” More seriously, he reflected, “I don’t enjoy this, but maybe I’m getting closer to God. Maybe I’ll become a better person. It would be nice to get old and saintly.”

Whatever changed about Andre Dubus after his accident, his rootedness in his family (six children), his writing and his faith remained constant. For Dubus, writing was organic and insistent, given to help him find meaning and bring him happiness.

Dubus’ stories are acclaimed as some of the finest of contemporary American literature. He was the recipient of numberous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a McArthur “genius” grant. His last collection of short stories, Dancing After Hours (1996), was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.

The stories are reflective of Dubus’ experiences and concerns: they are set in Louisiana and Massachusetts, are about military men, baseball players, Catholics, fathers, children – and women. Dubus was able to capture the inner lives of women with moving sympathy and impressive accuracy. All of his characters confront violence, abandonment, the slow draining of love and painful jolts into adulthood. One finishes a reading of Andre Dubus stories astonished and grateful for the resiliancy of the human heart, which can continue to love and hope despite the wounds life renders without reason or warning. He wrote about characters living through moments in which they are gathering themselves back together from past hurt and loss and making choices on just how they will go on. These choices involve faith of one sort or another, faith which is a response to God’s grace, love freely given in that less-than-ideal circumstance which is life, mediated through word and flesh, human connection, love, sex, children and Church.

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