Baser Natures

In his new book, Dirty Love, Andre Dubus III conjures up characters who struggle through a lurid wilderness of sex. For the writer, that’s the path not taken: “We tend to write about what haunts us.”

By | Boston Magazine |
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Photographs by Silja Magg. Shot on location at Ould Newbury Golf Club. Chair provided by Urban Elements. Models, Kayvon, Elizabeth, and Kelsey/Maggie Inc.

The area in the woods next to the shed had already been cleared of brush and the earth was raw and damp and the air smelled like the dark green of ripped leaves. Andre Dubus III, in the first stages of building an extension onto his shed, passed me a bottle of bug spray and headed from the driveway of the house he built with his brother in Newbury, into the shade where the shed stood. “You’ll need this,” he said. Fat horseflies buzzed and got swatted; mosquitoes, at around two on this breezy August afternoon, either weren’t awake, or were deterred by the spray. Dubus held a tape measure and a notebook for measurements. He surveyed the space. “I’m starting to get really excited,” he said.

The shed as it stands now used to be a stable, and houses the tools of what used to be Dubus’s trade. A quick peek in the door, with a breath of cut grass, grease, and dust, showed a tangle of cords, drills, saws, and nail guns, heaped and crowded. Standing on the wet dirt where he’d cleared much of the brush, he passed the dumb end of the tape and told me to hold it there against the wall above a joist as he moved toward the back end of the shed about 18 feet away, stretching the tape between us. As he measured, he called out the numbers and made notes on a pad for the materials he would need: Two-by-tens, two-by-twelves, pressure-treated six-by-sixes, footer tubes, hangers, lags, J-bolts.

A certain hesitation marked his movements, the tentative steps of someone moving through a once-familiar house at night after a long time away. Once, before he had become a bestselling novelist whose characters were portrayed on the big screen by the likes of Ben Kingsley, Dubus had been a self-employed carpenter. But aside from helping a nephew do some framing in a basement around Christmas, he hasn’t been building much lately. He looked like he missed it. Dubus has the lean strength of someone who pays close attention to his body, not in a showy Los Angeles way, though there is something of Hollywood about his thick wavy hair, brown with some gray at the edges. He mentioned more than once a 10-mile road race he’d completed a few days before. At age 53, he ran a mile in nine minutes and 55 seconds.

He made another measure, this time from the side of the shed out into the dirt and plant debris. We were talking about the language of carpentry, the slang and the nicknames, the idiosyncratic terms of measure.

“I bet your boss doesn’t use the phrase CH,” he said. My boss is a 47-year-old lesbian carpenter who I’ve been working with for about four years. “You know CH?”

It took me a second.

“We used to say, ‘Take a red CH off that board,’” he went on. “That’s a thirty-second of an inch. My wife just told me that red pubic hair is thicker than black. So we had it all wrong.”

 

The odometer in Dubus’s workhorse pickup truck read 206,000 miles. It was still summer, and hot, and as we climbed in and began the ride over to the lumberyard to get materials for his shed extension with the windows up and the air conditioning on, we started talking about sex. His new book, Dirty Love, out last month from W. W. Norton, is a collection of two short stories and two novellas. It is a darkly sexual book, though Dubus claimed not to have realized it until recently. “I guess there is a lot of sex in that book,” he said. There is.

It’s a departure in form from his last few books, although his work has always dealt with the baser acts of human nature—in particular, violence. In his novel House of Sand and Fog, a finalist for the National Book Award that was made into an Academy Award–nominated movie, the violence is directed inward, as characters attempt (and succeed at) suicide. The Garden of Last Days takes place at a Florida strip club just before September 11, 2001; James Franco had signed on to direct a film adaptation, but over the summer he reportedly walked away just weeks before it was slated to enter production. In Dubus’s memoir, Townie, he wrote about the rough episodes of his youth, and about his attempts to put his past as a brawler behind him. The violence in Dirty Love is the emotional kind, and Dubus is glad about it. “I’m beginning to get a funny insight: By writing directly about the physical violence I had in my life as a young guy, I may have freed myself to write about something else,” he said. That’s not to say that the emotional violence is any less brutal. It’s territory his father, the masterful if underappreciated short-story writer Andre Dubus, explored with peerless strength and insight.

Two of the pieces in Dirty Love deal with infidelity: In one, a bartender and wannabe poet cheats on his pregnant wife with a busty red-haired waitress in a scuzzy seaside bar. The project manager of the opening novella watches a video of his cheating wife receiving oral sex after a workout from another man. Another story centers around the romantic and sexual compromises and disappointments of a heavyset 29-year-old virgin bank teller named Marla. In the title novella, teenage Devon tries to rise above the shame of an explicit cell-phone video of her posted online.

In the acknowledgments, Dubus thanks his 18-year-old daughter, Ariadne, for her help with understanding Facebook and cyberspace. “I would not have written that story if I didn’t have a teenage daughter,” he said. Dubus has deep concerns about the Internet, not just about the trance of the screen and ignoring one another in restaurants and as we walk down the sidewalk, but about online pornography. Growing up, he explained, he was lucky to find a moldy Playboy under a bush somewhere. “Now kids can push a button and see a woman having sex with a donkey. It’s toxic, and we don’t talk about it enough and it’s doing a real number on young men and how they view women,” he said. He’s not a prude, and emphasizes that he’s a supporter of the First Amendment. But when he talks to his sons and his male students about pornography, he tells them “porn will make you look at a woman like a sex object. Don’t do it. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation and erotica, but our brains weren’t wired for such easy access to these images. It’s like crack cocaine, and you’ve got to walk away.”

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Dubus’s characters gain our sympathies in part because the writer sympathizes with them so much. “I’ve always been drawn on a human level to people on the outside,” he said.

Having a daughter has brought this into sharper relief, as Ariadne and her friends grow into young women. “As a father, it’s been remarkable to watch,” he said as we drove along Newburyport back roads with old Colonial houses on large pretty lawns. “One of the disturbing parts—it’s mainly beautiful—but one of the disturbing parts is I’ve watched them all blossom into womanly bodies and I’ve seen men check out these young women walking down the street and I want to kill them.” The way he thinks about it, seeing a 16-year-old girl with a woman’s body is like seeing a child driving an 18-wheeler. “You think it’s a big old 18-wheeler, but no, it’s a child driving, and don’t look at that ass.”

Dubus prides himself on making the right decisions, on self-restraint. He has never cheated on his wife, Fontaine: “I’ve slept with the same woman for the last 25 years,” he said. His candor when talking about fidelity doesn’t come across as back-patting or holier-than-thou. It’s a choice he’s made. But he peoples his work with characters whose decisions have flung them down paths impossible to double back on.

They gain our sympathies in part because Dubus sympathizes with them so much: Even if a character ends up murdering someone by the end of the story, there is a sense that they started out aiming to do the best they knew how. “I’ve always been drawn on a human level to people on the outside,” Dubus said as we were talking about his story “Marla,” in which an isolated and insecure bank teller struggles with sex and love. Where his earlier work focuses on more-obvious outsiders (inmates and terrorists and bad seeds), the people in Dirty Love aren’t on such high-stakes margins. These domestic stories take place in North Shore towns. They examine how easy it is to fall away from one another, not in dramatic moments in which we’re untethered from the human community, but in small, quiet ways.

“We tend to write about what haunts us, what scares us,” Dubus said. In part, he said, Dirty Love is about “what a goddamn job it is to be in a monogamous relationship.” In the opening novella, “Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed,” a wife cheats on her husband after 25 years of marriage. He quoted Springsteen: “‘You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above.’ To me, man, that is the central challenge of being married. Where’s that line? What’s fair to ask him or her to change? When do you cross the line in wanting someone different than you have?”

 

Dubus once considered changing his name to Stoneham Lawrence. He’d just given his first reading back in 1989, the year he released his debut collection, The Cage Keeper and Other Stories. When it came time for questions from the audience, no one asked about the book he’d written and just read from. All the questions were about his dad.

Dubus’s father—a three-time divorcé and womanizer also named Andre Dubus—left the family when the younger Andre was about 10 years old, and was absent for much of his son’s childhood. It left a mark. Fatherlessness featured heavily in Dubus’s memoir Townie. And you can hear the echoes of that absence when Dubus describes the big graduation party he and his family threw for his daughter, Ariadne. Dubus recalled that when he graduated, his father wasn’t there. He couldn’t understand it, he said: “I’d fucking crawl on rusting roofing tacks to Ohio to see my son graduate from college.”

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But the elder Andre was also a celebrated writer. Though never a commercial success—he published only one novel, devoting himself instead to the art of the short story—he was well known and well loved among peers such as Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike. He won fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations, as well as many literary prizes, and when he died at 62, he had an obituary in the New York Times.

So in 1989, at that first reading, the name “Andre Dubus” still meant the father, not the son. Driving home up I-93 afterward, the son wondered if he could ever escape his father’s name. He passed signs for Stoneham and Lawrence, and thought that as pen names went, Stoneham Lawrence wasn’t bad. But he couldn’t do it. “When I’m writing I feel so genuinely like me—I couldn’t put a fake name on that,” he said. “I sensed there are some lessons we are supposed to learn and we are not supposed to duck our fate too much. But God, do I hate that III on my name.”

Now that Dubus has his own Guggenheim Fellowship and constellation of prestigious prizes, the pressure of comparison with his father has eased. But with Dirty Love—with these intimate short stories and novellas about the difficulty of sharing lives, about betrayal and fidelity and the emotional violence we inflict on the people we love—intentionally and not, Dubus is treading toward the emotional tenor of his father’s work, in setting, theme, and situation. Dubus the elder wrote a story called “The Fat Girl”: “Once when she was sixteen a boy kissed her at a barbecue; he was drunk and he jammed his tongue into her mouth and ran his hands up and down her hips.” About Marla, the heavyset virgin from Dubus III’s story: “Once in a crowded house, a drunk boy had wedged her against the hall wall and pressed his hands into her breasts under her sweater.” In “Dirty Love,” teenage Devon comes to know the power she holds over young men, in taking them into her mouth: “How could she not lean down and wait for him to unbutton and unzip his jeans, his soft grunts, his hand on her back like he was her patient and she was the only one who could cure him.” From Dubus the elder’s “Finding a Girl in America”: “Lori…knows that she is ministering to him, her lips and fingers and now her mouth medicinal.” In the opening novella of Dirty Love, Laura voices part of the reason she felt pushed to stray from her marriage: “You treat me like I work for you, Mark. You always have.” From his father’s novella “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” about love and infidelity between two sets of couples and friends: “He was treating housewife like a profession, like a lawyer or doctor or something, and that’s wrong.” These echoes exist in the two men’s work—shared blood, shared name, shared calling—but Dubus III sounded ill pleased when the overlap was raised.

A just-detectable tightness came into his voice, as though he’d been reminded for the third time to do some boring necessary task and was trying to maintain patience. There was talk of shadows, long ones, dark ones, ones that Dubus III has come out from under. “Nobody wrote better than my father about people’s hearts in relationships,” he said. And Dubus III has sold many times over his father’s entire body of work, which likely goes a long way in making him feel that he casts a shadow of his own. Dubus writes in “Dirty Love”: “How can anyone ever be clean with family? Blood is too dirty, dirty with love that can so easily turn to hate.”

“Do you mind if we make a quick detour?” Dubus asked on the way to the lumberyard. He had a big inflatable inner tube in the back of his truck, and needed to drop it at his mother’s place for the week she was about to spend on Lake Winnipesaukee. We entered her home, a cat curled like a comma on a chair by a sofa, good old planks of wide floor and exposed beams of a house built a couple hundred years ago. Dubus and his mother embraced. Patricia Dubus has short white gray hair and warm welcoming eyes and her Louisiana accent sounds like butter melting over something sweet. While Dubus bungeed the inner tube into the back of her Tacoma, she chatted about how she wanted to go to trade school, how her father could do anything with his hands, “a handsome Scotch-Irish son of a bitch,” as Dubus described him, who was a third-grade-educated pipe fitter. She wasn’t allowed to go to trade school, and uses her hands to make beautiful quilts instead. “I wanted my boys to be able to use their hands,” she said. When Dubus came back from outside, they talked about the paint job Dubus’s nephew had done. They critiqued the work, looked at the seam where ceiling met wall. “I had to teach him what cutting in was,” Patricia said with a laugh.

Back on the road, I wondered if Dubus remembered his mother encouraging him and his brother to do work with their hands. He recalled instead the pride he saw in her when she visited a deck he and his brother were building. “It was juxtaposed with her ex-husband, who built beautiful stories, but….” The elder Andre, he explained, could craft a plot but not a deck.

 

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“I’ve been talking to my kids about building,” Dubus said. “It’s just such a wonderfully blessed way to live, to make things.”

At the lumberyard, Dubus has an easy rapport with the folks who work there. This was the place where he got his materials when he was building his house. It’s changed hands, but a few of the older guys remain. He asked after their families. Rick, an older guy about to take a few days off for knee surgery, asked if he could have a part in the movie version of The Garden of Last Days.

“I’m saving you for a nudie scene,” Dubus joked to easy laughter.

Out back, loading the truck with the boards, Dubus scrutinized each board, the type of builder who checks each piece of wood himself. “Nope,” he said as he looked down the edge of a bowed two-by-ten. “Nope,” to another. “This one’s good. I’ll take this one.”

Dubus, like a beloved pastor or a favorite uncle, has a way of finding common ground with the people he talks to. He and Dwayne, a young guy who worked at the lumberyard, who Dubus hadn’t met before, became fast friends as Dubus selected his boards and they loaded them onto his truck.

“Friday night, you got a watering hole you go to, Dwayne?”

They talked local pubs for a few minutes: the Grog, the Thirsty Whale. Both agreed that Ceia was a little upscale. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Dwayne admitted something intimate, about his mother having Alzheimer’s or his girlfriend moving out. Such seems the effect Dubus has on people. He and Dwayne shook hands on parting, wished each other a good weekend. Dwayne’s bashful smile gave the sense that this was a good way to close out a Friday afternoon in summer.

And the scene repeated itself a few minutes later, at a natural-foods store with its smell of seeds and powders and teas, fresh fruits and the promise of clean living and its rewards, where Dubus bought a couple of protein bars. The kids behind the counter recognized him; a gray-haired guy came in the door and the two greeted each other with a handshake. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. He passed along bits of gossip and quick bios throughout the afternoon—that guy’s wife, I think she’s his third, used to dance with Fontaine. The woman at the hardware store, her brother is a beautiful chef in town; there goes my painter, I get my windows painted every year; see the guy in the garage there? He’s a carpenter, too. I’ve worked with him before.

The truck ran sluggish and a little lower to the ground, with a bunch of pressure-treated boards and eight sacks of concrete, at 80 pounds each, weighing down the bed. He drove through the center of Newburyport, with its old brick mill buildings and narrow streets. Tents lined the main square, the smell of sausage and peppers mixed with the sweet earthy smell of roasted nuts, and a rock band was starting to warm up to a crowd of people gathered in front of the stage. It was one of the last days of Yankee Homecoming, an annual weeklong festival that brings thousands of tourists to the town.

“I’ve been talking to my kids about building,” he said as we moved slowly through town back toward his house. His 16-year-old son, Elias, is reading House of Sand and Fog, and he wanted to talk to him not about writing, but about “making things.” He told Elias that he wrote House in notebooks sitting in the front seat of his car, and if he hadn’t written in those notebooks, they wouldn’t be in the house where they live. And the house started as a drawing on a piece of paper, and now it exists in the world, and the novel that allowed him to build the house started as a sliver as an idea in his head and now it’s in 25 countries. “It’s just such a wonderfully blessed way to live, to make things,” he said.

Back home, he recruited Elias, wearing a faded Led Zeppelin T-shirt, to help him unload the truck. Broad and tall with blond hair and big shoulders and a good firm handshake for a teen, Elias told his dad about his workout that day. When his back was turned, Dubus turned to me and made a gesture that said, Can you believe this kid?

“It’s easier if you throw the bags up on your shoulder,” Dubus said as Elias lifted another bag of concrete. “And try not to breathe in the dust.”

“Too late,” Elias said. “The shower I took was totally pointless.”

“You want to help your old man with this shed?” Dubus asked him.

Elias gave him a shrug and a noncommittal maybe, probably a little more interested in fall sports and his rock band, and headed back inside the house.

Dubus was reminded of a story from back when he was five or six years old, before his parents split. His aunt was visiting, his mother’s only sister, and she asked him, “Do you want to be a writer like your daddy?” And Dubus said, “No, I don’t wanna be a writer. I wanna be a working man like Pappy.”

“And I became both.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/arts-entertainment/article/2013/10/29/andre-dubus-iii-dirty-love/