Narrative 10

To celebrate the publication of Andre Dubus III’s Gone So Long, his first novel in ten years, Narrative has a few questions for the author.

1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?

This always changes, of course, but Jake Barnes, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s first and best novel, The Sun Also Rises, has been lingering in my consciousness ever since I first read his tale of loss and resigned perseverance more than thirty years ago. One of my favorite characters in life would have to be Walt Whitman: his passion and his compassion.

2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?

The opening line to Norman Mailer’s novel Barbary Shore. “Probably I was in the war.” Probably?!! The dramatic possibilities of that!

3. What story, book, or poem do you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?

The short story “Trilobites” by Breece D’J Pancake. I read this wonderfully sad and beautifully written story in my early twenties, when I was just beginning to write. What I still admire about it so much is its sincere and emotional nakedness on the page, the feeling I got as a reader that Pancake was trying to lose his very self in his characters and their trouble, that he wasn’t aware of himself as the writer whatsoever. Too much postmodern writing feels too self-referential to my ear, too world-weary and ironic. William Kitteridge once said that if you are not at least risking sentimentality in your work, then you’re not writing from your deepest inner self. Pancake, in his short life, wrote from that place, and it helped to teach me to try and do the same.

4. Best part of the day?

Going down into the basement of my house to the sound-proof writing cave I built, locking the door, hanging a dark blanket over the one small window, setting my cup of black French Roast coffee on my desk, reaching for a book of poems from the hundreds of books of poems on the shelf beside me, reading two to three poems, then opening my composition notebook, sharpening my pencil, and stepping into that infinite dreamworld one true, hopefully true, word at a time.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?

If it’s the writing spirit, the cure for me is to take a few days off and read the outstanding work of other writers. This always makes me want to get back to my own writing and try harder to find its beating heart. If the flagging spirit has to do with my life, then I ask myself who I know that needs help in some way, who is hurting right now more than I am, and I try to go do something helpful for that person. I also find hard, physical labor to be a cure-all in many ways.

6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

It’s probably not good that I have no idea what the ten words are that I use most on the page. I really have no idea. That said, my youngest son, Elias (twenty-one), is a writer, and he makes it clear to me that when I get passionate about a particular subject I drop far too many F-bombs. I’m keeping an eye on that.

7. What’s your current obsession?

It would have to be my hatred for so-called smartphones. I hate how they’ve enslaved an entire generation, casting everyone in a trance of seeking distraction after distraction after distraction. I don’t own one and never will. I’ve never sent a text. I’ve never been on social media. A handful of computer scientists in Silicon Valley have done a real number on us, and they’ve gotten very rich doing it. I’m writing an essay about this now . . .

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

This was back in my midtwenties when the writer Gordon Weaver told me that I need to use more compound sentences in my writing, something I had stopped doing after another writer told me that I needed to use more short sentences. Weaver’s advice brought me back to my natural style, and it was a good lesson for me in taking from others what’s helpful and discarding what’s not.

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

I wish that the twelve-year-old me knew that there was a bright and potentially creative kid inside him and that he did not need to spend so much of his time thinking of building up his body and committing acts of violence on violent boys and men.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

There is so much to say on this! But I’ll limit myself to talking about marital love, as opposed to the boundless love I have for our three children, or the enduring love I have for the family I come from. If I’ve learned nothing from sharing my life with the same woman for the past thirty years (my wife, Fontaine, a choreographer and modern dancer and painter, the mother of our three grown children), it is this: in Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes: “The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.” The central task, it seems to me, of marriage is to truly care for the other in this way, to allow and encourage the other not to be defined by the marriage but supported by it. This takes courage because the risk is that the other will grow away from you, but if we don’t do this, we begin to cage each other. And I believe that truly loving the other means that both have to create a safe container in which to fight clean and fight as often as needed. What do I mean by “clean”? We can’t call each other names. We sure as hell can’t raise our hand to the other. We can yell and swear, but we can’t yell and swear at each other. We have to find a way to express our deepest truths without blaming the other for how we feel. That kind of thing. (When I meet couples who say they never fight, I begin to fear for their future as a couple.)

Finally, is there a short passage from the novel you’d like to share with our readers?

Thank you. Here are the first few paragraphs of the first chapter of my new novel, Gone So Long:

Once again her name moves through Daniel’s blood like floating debris. It scrapes along his bones and pokes at his old organs and it is a steady, pulsing nudge in his head. For days now it has lodged itself in the searing ache in his hips and lower back, and he knows there’s only one way to free it, but first he needs to finish these chairs he’s caning under the sun. His eyes sting. His work glasses have slipped to the end of his nose. Daniel takes them off and lets them hang around his neck. He wipes the sweat off his forehead then stands to stretch his back, but the pain remains, the sickness deep inside him now, he can feel it. It’s not going anywhere. He sits on his stool and puts his glasses on and gets back to work.

Today he notices his hands. They’re his old man’s—thick fingers, chipped and yellowed nails, though his father’s always had carnival paint in his cuticles that never came out. Daniel reaches for the nail file he uses to weave the cane under and over itself. A warm wind kicks up from the east and brings with it beach sounds, or maybe it’s just Daniel’s memory of them—the creaking gears of the Ferris wheel and the popping water balloons and the cries of gulls. There’s the tinny whine of the carousel organ and the rattling jerk of the roller coaster cars, the shrieks of women and children hurled out over the hissing surf. But always there comes, rising up from inside him and getting louder, the blaring rock and roll of The Himalaya: “Sugar, Sugar,” “Proud Mary,” Tommy Roe singing he’s so dizzy his head is spinning. Yesterday, after months of thinking about it, Daniel finally drove around the Midway, and it isn’t half what it used to be. The wooden roller coaster was torn down years ago, and the Ferris wheel they have now is kiddie sized, The Himalaya gone, though there’s a strip club with tall white columns at the doors. Half a block down from that, in the front window of a souvenir shop, a male manikin in swimming trunks stood among beach towels and hula hoops under a hand-lettered sign: Father’s Day Sale/Half Price. Daniel hasn’t seen his daughter in forty years, and there is so much to tell her, but why would she listen?

There was her mother’s brown skin, her long wet hair that smelled like the ocean and baby oil and made him want to kiss every part of her. There was her small face and straight back, her breasts and brown nipples. All these years later he can still see them, the tiny dark freckles around them, how white her breasts looked, the rest of her always so tanned because they were both Amusement Park kids who lived at the beach: Danny Ahearn, Liam’s son, the artist’s boy, though only a few called his father an artist. They called him Ahearn or Old Liam or The Magic Mick because he could take sea air-beaten shit and make it new again: the giant clown’s head on the roof of the Fun House, all the signage for joints up and down the Midway—The Five O’Clock Club, Willey’s Hard and Soft Ice Cream, The Pavilion and Bath House and Shaheen’s Fun O’Rama Park.

And Linda’s father owned the Penny Arcade. Her family lived there too, though you wouldn’t know it. Past the Skee Ball and slot machines, the pinballs and billiard tables was a black wall, and on the other side of that wall was the apartment Linda lived in with her mother and little brother Paul and her father, Gerry Dubie, who hated Danny because he could smell how much he wanted his Linda. Everybody wanted her, and that was the problem.

No, that’s old thinking. The problem had always been Danny’s. For him it was more than just wanting; it was a need so fierce his own body felt like a too-tight suit, like the blood in his veins was about to turn on him until he was with her again. And then when he did have her, that hot worm of possession burrowed into his heart. He’d never been one of the handsome boys, not like Jimmy Squeeze who got his name because he could hold a pencil between his chest muscles, or Tony Scarf with his long hair and 500 Skee Ball tickets hanging off one shoulder, or Manny Pina and his lean torso and face you could put on a cereal box. And there were so many others, beach raff from all the stinking mill towns of the Merrimack Valley, sometimes a few rich boys from Boston or New York who rented air-conditioned cottages on the sand past the barrooms at the edge of the strip. But Danny had something the others did not, something he never would have known about if Will Price hadn’t told him that afternoon in May 1969, the season just about to kick into gear.

And Don’t Miss:

If I Owned a Gun,” an essay by Andre Dubus III