Visiting author Dubus reveals swamp of love
by Rob Neufeld
To do that, you’ve got four novellas with which to explore the lives and hearts of several not-quite-right couples in the Hampton Beach area of New Hampshire.
Rarely do we see fiction as façade-peeling as Dubus’ full treatments. He runs the gamut of traits in his characters, from self-absorbed to compassionate, with a lot of groping in between.
Dubus, also author of “House of Sand and Fog,” is the featured speaker at Western Carolina University, April 13, for the first night of its four-day Spring Literary Festival—this area’s literary highlight of the year.
You might think dirty sex is in fact the book’s subject when the first novella, “Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed,” leads off with Frank Welch watching a film of his wife, Laura, being pleasured by another man in a two-door coupe.
A hired detective had shot the footage.
Your sympathy for Mark curdles a little when he physically forces Laura to watch the video. She then comes back at him with the accusation that all he ever has done is criticize her.
Well, of course, he thinks at one point, that’s who he is, a risk management executive for a project management company, “a professional judge and jury.”
When Mark had started that job, he hadn’t been so good at it; he’d been too accommodating. His boss, Teddy Burns, had taken time to have a talk with him.
Teddy had provoked Mark into lashing back at him, and then had responded, “I knew there was a real PM in you somewhere. Boston wants me to send you packing, but here’s what I know; you’re playing the role of big sister, but you’re really the mean little brother.”
Teddy knows something of Mark’s childhood. His mentoring had involved bringing out the bully in Mark.
The making of a man
One’s job shapes one’s personality, as do other things, such as parental influences.
When Mark imagines the route that Laura’s lover, Frank, would take to meet her at the gym they attend, he envisions Frank passing the barbershop that Mark’s father had once patronized. This conjures up indelible memories: his father losing money on one of his mills and becoming a barfly who no longer was known as Bill Welch, but as Welchy.
“Welchy,” Mark reflects, “who ran up tabs he couldn’t pay and who died on a moonless night in February in the backseat of a ‘63 Impala that belonged to a man who had gone through the dead drunk’s pockets and called the Welches at two-fifteen in the morning.”
Mark would become a not-Welchy.
By the story’s end, we see what had first brought Mark and Laura together as people who loved each other; and we see their attractive and dismaying traits; and we see how they move toward a maybe-resolution that involves compromises akin to risk management.
Two guys risk botching good things in the next two stories, “Marla” and “The Bartender.”
Marla, the title character in the first tale, is a virgin and a Miss Lonelyhearts. After eight years behind a bank teller’s window, she finally meets a beau, big Dennis Munson, a regular customer.
Marla thinks she’s not a very attractive woman; but that’s not her problem. As her supervisor and friend, Nancy, tells her, Marla’s too honest and too much of a purist; and, judging by her conversational abilities, she’s dull.
Dennis really loves her. He oscillates between self-centeredness and generosity, so you have to give him cred. But he has other habits and behaviors that bruise Marla, she discovers a couple of weeks after moving in with him.
He’s a neat freak; and it’s annoying that he strives to educate Marla in his approach. Their lovemaking is okay, but stops short of complete warmth, “and she didn’t like how he always took a shower after.”
He prefers violent computer games to going out; and his attempt to initiate Marla into his cyberworld makes her feel empty. His fatness had been a part of his bigness, she’d first thought; but now that she saw how sedentary he was, her feeling has changed.
No great crimes are being committed in this relationship, but love is failing with Marla and Dennis. Are they to accept the dead parts of their union? Are their conditions modern ones, fed by an alienating society and the self-fulfillment that psychology holds out as an expectation?
I t used to be that such dilemmas were the stuff of literature—Madame Bovary; Rabbit Angstrom—but we’re past that kind of introspection now, and more into epic literature.
In this context, “Dirty Love” is a refreshing revival of the quest for depth.
“The Bartender” reveals how Robert Doucette, head bartender at a seaside hotel, meets the woman he thinks is his match, Althea, and screws things up. It’s another story about human ill-fittedness, but, in this case, it’s a kind of parody, except for its scary parts.
Doucette is a wannabe poet; and, as he comes to fear, a blowhard. His attraction to Althea occurred when she walked into his bar and fulfilled a line of poetry he’d written that morning—a woman “with eyes of black hope.”
Robert’s father, a dairy farmer, had once dubbed his son “all talk.” The one time that Robert had turned his farm-based experience—cleaning milking machines, heaving hay bales, packing corn in a silo, tending to stupid cow injuries—into a poem, a college instructor had said, “Try writing a poem without you in it.”
Mainly, Robert uses poems to get girls in the sack. His potential reconciliation with Althea, after a climactic betrayal, remains in doubt.
There’s a father figure, Francis, a retired and widowed teacher; and his grand-niece, Devon, a high school drop-out, chambermaid, and headphone-wearing cyber-communicator.
The depth and breadth of this 128-pager is astounding.
Francis is a Korean War vet who’d traumatically witnessed the execution of civilians. Devon is the victim of Internet character assassination after having been videotaped performing a sexual act she was pressured into.
Both of them have unquenchable spirits.
“Dirty Love” plays with the themes of the previous stories and takes them further.
Devon engages in an online website called “Chatroulette,” by which she connects with random people around the world through Skype-type encounters. When a vulgar person shows up, she “nexts” them. Eventually, she finds someone like herself, a boy with PTSD from a recent war. You come to realize that the place that war has in people’s lives is an additional theme in Dubus’ book.
Here’s another theme.
Francis recalls going to a stag party for Devon’s father years ago, and seeing big screen porn looming over the revelers. He gets the sense, at the moment, “that we are all ugly and that beauty is a respite and innocence is a lie.”
The story, however, clearly shows that innocence is not a lie. Francis’ pure wish to guide Devon; and Devon’s longing for an honest, loving relationship are testimonies in support of faith.
Francis therefore comes to a different conclusion—that when our dearest hopes are frustrated, “we crave oblivion in any way it presents its dark, sweet self to us.”
Dubus centers his fiction in people’s mentalities, which are swamps, not boardwalks, and we are called to enjoy the immersion.
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III (W.W. Norton hardcover, 2013; trade paper, 2014, 306 pages, $14.95).
Andre Dubus III speaks in the UC Theater, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, 7:30, Mon., Apr. 13, as part of the Spring Literary Festival.
Other keynote speakers are:
Author photo by Kevin Harkins