TWENTY YEARS, THREE BOOKS: Reintroducing the Short Stories & Novellas of Andre Dubus
February 24, 2019
by Joshua Bodwell
On a cold February afternoon in 1998, I visited an independent bookshop in Wells, Maine. In the shop’s ever-reliable “Staff Picks” section, I noticed a paperback by Andre Dubus. I had never heard of Dubus—and it would be years of mispronunciation before I learned that his last name rhymes with “abuse,” like “duh-byooz”—but that day Dancing After Hours leapt out at me.
Back then—and even today, for that matter—any Vintage Contemporaries paperback with a spare mid-1980s/early-1990s cover design and bold stripe of color on the spine gave me pause. I had been making my way slowly through the entire list of the so-called “Dirty Realists” of the day—Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Richard Russo, Joy Williams, and Tobias Wolff—and they all seemed to be on Vintage Contemporaries, many of them edited by Gary Fisketjon, now an editor and vice president at Knopf.
I thumbed the pages of Dancing After Hours. On the back cover were comparisons to Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, and even Anton Chekhov, the greatest of Russian masters. On the basis of a single story’s opening line, I plunked down my twelve dollars: “On a Thursday night in early autumn she nearly committed adultery, was within minutes of consummating it, or within touches, kisses; it was difficult to measure by time or by her mouth and tongue and hands, or by his.” (“The Timing of Sin”)
I quickly discovered Dubus’s work was never easy. The stories were fraught with difficult moments of loneliness and heartache, sudden explosions of violence. And yet, Dubus infused them too with tenderness and redemption, balanced complexity with kindheartedness. He was a devout but complex Catholic, so even when his stories felt suffused with a kind of spirituality, they never felt “religious” in a didactic sense; rather than accepting the black-and-white of church doctrine, they embraced the grayness of reality.
I was rapt.
A few months after my initial discovery, I found three paperback editions of Dubus’s early books at a favorite used bookstore housed in a former train depot: Separate Flights (1975), Adultery & Other Choices (1977), and Finding a Girl in America (1980).The covers of all three books featured austere black-and-white and hand-lettered titling in red. The elegant paperbacks were the work of Boston-based David R. Godine, Publisher. Just as I trusted the curation of theVintage Contemporaries list so much I would stop and consider any book it published, the moment I held those three Dubus books in that wonderfully book-brimming old train depot, I added books published by Godine to that list, too; it was a list that already included Black Sparrow Press and City Lights Books.
As I read deeper into Dubus’s body of work, I scoured the thin, late-1990s internet for more details about the man. Eventually I pieced together his biography: Dubus was born in 1936, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to a Cajun-Irish family. After peacetime service in the U.S. Marine Corps, Dubus attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 1966, he moved north to teach literature and creative writing at Bradford College in Massachusetts. He spent the rest of his life living and teaching in northern New England’s blue-collar mill towns.
In addition to six short story collections, one novel, and a standalone novella, Dubus published two collections of essays: Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Movable Chair. Dubus was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” later in life. He won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and the Jean Stein Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize. In other words, though he suffered a smaller-than-deserved readership, Dubus’s work was nonetheless critically acclaimed.
In a burst of enthusiasm one year after I had discovered Dancing After Hours, I sleuthed out a mailing address for Dubus and wrote him a letter of gratitude. A few weeks later I learned that Dubus—who had been confined to a wheelchair for the latter part of his life after surviving a horrific automobile accident—had died suddenly of heart failure. The date was February 24, 1999, about one year since my discovery of his work.
A few months after reading about Dubus’s passing in the now-defunct Book magazine, a letter with “Dubus” in the return address eerily appeared in my mailbox. I excitedly opened the envelope and found it was from Andre Dubus III. He had written to say he had found my letter intended for his father, and then he did a beautiful thing: He thanked me for thanking his dad.
By 2005, I was cub reporter at the York County Coast Star, which was at the time the largest weekly newspaper in Maine. I was thrilled to be writing for living, working long hours covering evening meetings at town hall, and filing thousands of words a week. Filled with more enthusiasm than smarts—I already had more work than I could handle—I made my first pitch to Poets & Writers. The story I hoped to write was for the magazine’s annual special section on independent/small presses: a profile about the thirty-fifth anniversary of Dubus’s longtime and loyal publisher, David R. Godine, as well as the house’s recent acquisition of Black Sparrow Press. I was pleasantly surprised when then-Senior Editor Kevin Larimer accepted the pitch.
The day I spent in Godine’s offices off the Boston Common was casual and free-flowing. Godine was surprisingly frank and unguarded as we talked about his three and a half decades in publishing. I would come to learn that all of this—the casual, free-flowing frankness—was classic Godine. He was something of an anachronism: an independent publisher with incredible taste who was more interested in publishing books he believed were timeless than he was in chasing trends. Godine committing to publishing the short stories of Andre Dubus in 1975 is a great example of the publisher’s iconoclasm:
Dubus published just one novel, The Lieutenant (Dial Press, 1967), which appeared one year after he graduated from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Dubus then waited seven rejection-filled years between the novel and the publication of his first short story collection, Separate Flights in 1975. Publishers wanted Dubus to commit to writing a novel before they would accept the short story manuscript. But not Godine, who has said, “there was more punch contained in one Dubus short story than in 99.98% of all the novels being published. I still feel that way.”
That afternoon in Godine’s perfectly disheveled, quintessentially Boston publisher’s office, surrounded by books, we talked at length about Dubus, and I felt closer to the author whose work I revered but who I would never meet.
During the summer of 2006, I worked on another piece for Poets & Writers: a long profile of Richard Ford, who had just published Lay of the Land, his third Frank Bascombe novel, set twenty years after The Sportswriter. The piece, “Here is Necessity,” appeared in the magazine’s November/December issue.
I mention this piece not because it’s about Dubus, but because this piece, combined with the Godine profile, gave me some footing at Poets & Writers for my next proposal: an essay on Andre Dubus for the magazine’s “Art of Reading” department.
Through late 2006 and much of 2007, I re-read, researched, and conducted interviews for my piece on the art of reading Andre Dubus. The essay swelled to nearly 10,000-words—I had 1,000-words alone from an email conversation with Ann Beattie about Dubus. As I struggled to compress to 3,500-words, I thought of Andre, who wrote just one novel in his life, and later said it would have made a fine novella.
I cut and cut, and re-shaped the piece with the help of my friends, Abbott and Michael. It took me longer than it should have to arrive at the simple truth: the piece will just not be able to contain all I want to say about Dubus.
The essay, “We Don’t Have to Live Great Lives,” eventually appeared in the Poets & Writers’ July/August issue—more than ten years after that cold afternoon in the Wells bookstore.
In April 2010, I was invited by Dr. Edward Gleason to attend a symposium on the work of Andre Dubus and Andre Dubus III at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Gleason and I had communicated by email a couple years earlier when he gave me permission to include his beautiful black-and-white photographs of Dubus with my Poets & Writers essay; Ed’s photographs are believed to be the last ever taken of Dubus before his death.
After the symposium, Gleason asked me to contribute an essay for the special Dubus tribute edition of the Xavier Review, which he was editing. My piece was entitled “The Problem of the Author: On Not Reading Autobiography into the Writing of Andre Dubus.”
In the early autumn of 2012, I drove out to Montpelier, Vermont, where Andre Dubus III was teaching a post-graduate writing workshop at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. We spent time talking, eating, drinking beer, and shooting pool. My notes from the trip became the basis of my profile of Dubus III, “We Can’t Choose What Haunts Us,” which appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Poets & Writers. I felt continually compelled to write about the Dubus’ work, and in allowing myself to embrace the obsession, I was becoming something of a scholar of all things Dubus.
For as long as I can remember—at least since I began parsing the line-drawings on the endpapers of Hardy Boys books when I was a young reader—I have been a reader who loves books as objects. My love of reading comes with a curiosity about and admiration for book design, and I often buy different editions of books I love.
In the case of Dubus’s books, after reading the paperbacks I found in the independent bookstore and the used copies I stumbled on in the former train depot, I later tracked down the first edition hardcovers of the same books—if I could find and afford a signed or inscribed copy, even better. My Dubus collection eventually grew to include multiple editions of every single one of his books, as well as letterpress-printed limited edition chapbooks.
When I first saw the early 1990s paperback redesigns of Dubus’s books, I was put off. The cover illustrations were dark (metaphorically and visually); they felt uninviting. But that’s just my subjective aesthetic opinion. Much more concerning than the cover art, the books’ trim size had been reduced from 6-inches x 9-inches to 5.5-inches x 8.5-inches, which meant the interior margins and type size had also been shrunken. The result was dark, difficult-to-read pages.
When I could find them in used bookstores, I bought copies of the original 1970s and 1980s editions of Dubus’s short stories and novellas so I had them on hand to press on fellow readers. I avoided the 1990s editions. Eventually, the 1990s editions became less and less in-stock or available. But this wasn’t good either, I quickly realized: how could readers discover Dubus as I had if his books weren’t widely available.
In 2015 I was thinking hard about Andre Dubus’s books. I was thinking about a few underappreciated writers who were having their long-overdue moments of celebration at the time—Lucia Berlin, James Salter, and Joy Williams, in particular. On Thanksgiving Day I was in a car, in the passenger seat, driving through New Hampshire when the idea struck me: I should reach out to Godine about redesigning and relaunching Dubus’s books with new introductions by writers who admired his work.
My revelation seemed so obvious that I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it earlier. It brought to mind something the Richard Ford said to me years earlier while sitting on his deck. It was a wonderfully Gertrude Stein-ian observation of an epiphany. Ford said: “Why we do not know what we do not know until we know it, I do not know…”
Godine and I had remained in touch ever since I’d interviewed him for Poets & Writers in 2005, and checked in with one another a couple times a year. But after getting my thoughts organized about a Dubus relaunch, I reached out first to Andre Dubus III. I would only proceed with the project, I told him, with his blessing and support. In his usual generous way, Dubus III—who at that point I had known for sixteen years—gave me his blessing and support.
Just after the New Year I sent Godine the proposal. He agreed to the project almost immediately.
By February, Godine and I were meeting up to discuss the Dubus project whenever he came north to Maine, either on a sales call or to his summer home on the coast.
We met periodically throughout 2016 and refined the project. I wanted things, of course, to proceed swiftly once the project was greenlit—but that’s not how things work in world of independent publishing. And so I attempted to be patient—not something, I have found, that always comes naturally to me.
In January, I took an early morning train down to Boston for a long meeting with Godine and the publishing house’s team. The shape and scope of the Dubus relaunch was solidifying. The extra time and patience had brought exciting revisions to my earliest thoughts about the project. The biggest evolution was the decision to merge the six Dubus books of fiction Godine had published between 1975 and 1986 into three new softcovers volumes.
For months I’d been honing a list of authors I wanted to approach to write new introductions for the re-issues. I had a list with the names of eight authors, but just three books that needed introductions. I remember an afternoon in the autumn of 2016 walking around Brattleboro, Vermont—where I was attending a literary festival—talking on my phone with Dubus III about the list of potential introduction writers; he was an invaluable sounding board throughout the process.
With Dubus III’s input, I made a short list of three authors I believed would be perfect for the project. I began to call this list “The Dream Team.” Even as I thought about what these three authors could bring to the project, I prepared myself for disappointment; all three authors are busy people, after all, working on books of their own, teaching, meeting myriad other professional deadlines. But when I explained the Dubus project to Ann Beattie, Richard Russo, and Tobias Wolff and asked them to contribute introductions to the volumes, all three said yes immediately—a testament to their admiration of Dubus’s work and, in two of the three cases, a great and deep affection for the man.
As the project evolved during 2017, I decided to include Dubus’s previously published but uncollected stories in volume three. With the help of antiquarian book dealers and university librarians, I tracked down copies of literary journals, quarterlies, and anthologies containing uncollected Dubus stories. The nine stories I gathered ranged from Dubus’s earliest publications in the 1960s, to the last stories he completed before his untimely death in 1999.
Finally, with Dubus III’s blessing, I selected titles for the three volumes by using the title from one Dubus’s own stories: We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Winter Father, and The Cross Country Runner.
And then the detail work began.
We returned the books to their 6-inch x 9-inch trim size, which meant that for the first time since the books were originally published in 1970s and 1980s, all 1,200 pages of the interiors were re-set and re-designed. Maine photographer Greta Rybus was hired to make three new images for the book covers. We added handsome French flaps to give the softcovers some additional heft and elegance.
Finally, I solicited blurbs for the three volumes from an amazing, award-winning troupe of authors who seem to admire Dubus’s writing every bit as much as I do: Molly Antopol, Richard Ford, Lily King, Tim O’Brien, Peter Orner, and Elizabeth Strout.
As the publications of the volumes approached, we placed the new introductions in various venues: Ann Beattie’s in The Paris Review, Richard Russo’s in The New Yorker, and Tobias Wolff’s in The American Scholar. And then some of the previously uncollected stories have since found new homes: “The Blackberry Patch” in the Catholic magazine Commonweal; “The Cross Country Runner” in Epoch; “Madeline Sheppard” in Five Points; and “Love is the Sky” online at LitHub.
And, finally, thoughtful and celebratory reviews and essays about the new Dubus volumes began to appear in America Magazine, Booklist (a starred review), The Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews, The New Criterion, The Paris Review, The Sewanee Review, Wall Street Journal, and others. The reviews are still coming in.
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As I have spent the past couple years pouring through the details of what is, in the end, the vast majority of one author’s life’s work, I have mourned the fact I could not call Andre Dubus just to talk, could not make the short drive from Maine to Massachusetts to visit him at his modest hillside house beside the Merrimack River. Dubus’s absence was always with me.
I am grateful to Andre Dubus for the words he left us. All I can offer in gratitude is this, my time and energy, my great hope that through these new volumes more readers discover his complex, masterful stories. It’s not enough, I know.
Joshua Bodwell is the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. He is a regular contributor to Poets & Writers Magazine and a contributing editor at the online journal Fiction Writers Review. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in magazines and quarterlies such as Ambit (London), Glimmer Train’s Writer’s Ask, Threepenny Review, and Slice. His journalism has garnered awards from the Maine and New England press associations. He was awarded the 2015 Marianne Russo Award for emerging authors from the Key West Literary Seminar.