Sweet Fire: Memories of Andre Dubus, Part 1

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This two-part essay on American writer Andre Dubus first appeared a few years ago, in different form, in AGNI and Gettysburg Review. Dubus, as you may know, was born in Lake Charles, grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, and got his degree at McNeese State. He was the father of Andre Dubus III.

Thomas E. Kennedy is an American writer who lives in Copenhagen. His most recent book is Falling Sideways, about which Alain de Botton says, “Falling Sideways is the finest novel I have read in many years. Thomas Kennedy is a true discovery, an author of rare intelligence and moral vision. Not least, the book is immensely compelling and beautifully written.”

Tom Kennedy will have an essay and poetry translations from Danish in an upcoming print issue of The McNeese Review.

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By Thomas E. Kennedy

At lunch time on Thursday, February 25th, 1999, waiting for a prescription to be filled, I wandered through a record shop in Copenhagen where I live, and one CD caught my eye. Roland Kirk. Sweet Fire. I picked it from the rack and studied the cover photo; there was Kirk, sporting a black beret, dark glasses wrapped around his unseeing eyes, three reed instruments strung around his neck while he blew into a transverse flute. I opened the case and read, “Saxophonist Roland Kirk (1936-1977) became famous in the sixties … blind from the age of two … by the time he was fifteen he was playing professionally as a tenor saxophonist … In 1977, he founded the Vibration School of Music to teach saxophonists ‘black classical music …’”

I should buy this, I thought, and listen to it, just so I can write to Andre and tell him I finally heard Roland Kirk. But I was in a hurry, I had a busy day. I put the CD back, picked up my nose drops, returned to the office. The afternoon was hectic. It was deadline day on a book I was editing, and emails were flying in from all over Europe.

Each email required me to do something—make a change in the book, phone someone, send another email, ask my secretary to do something. It was hectic. In the middle of it all came an email that said, “You don’t know me, but our mutual friend Susan Dodd asked me to let you know that Andre Dubus died last night, February 24th. His death was sudden and unexpected, probably a heart attack. Susan sends her love and best wishes on this sad occasion.”

It was 3:02 p.m. in Copenhagen. On the east coast of the U.S., where Andre had lived, it would have been 9:02 a.m.

Life being what it is—baby needs a new pair of shoes—I had to go on doing what I was doing. So I went on plowing through the cacophony of emails to meet the deadline on the book, but all the while one part of my mind was saying, Andre’s dead, and thinking back to the eighties, before his accident, when I used to travel regularly to and from my home in Denmark to Vermont College to study or teach and would see him a few times a year.

I met Andre by chance. His wife then, the writer Peggy Rambach, was a student in the same MFA program in which I had started in 1983. It was a low-residency program which required our presence on campus in Montpelier two weeks of every six months.

One hot, muggy July evening of my second residency there, I walked down the hill upon which the Vermont College campus sits into Montpelier. I had a twenty dollar bill in my pocket which was the fee I’d received from a literary journal named Confrontation for my first published story, “The Sins of Generals.”

In town I climbed a flight of stairs to a second floor bar and restaurant called Julio’s. Seated at one of the tables in the cocktail lounge was a man I knew of vaguely, a burly bearded man who was said to be quite a writer. My roommate, Paul Casey, himself burly and red-bearded, was with him. I approached the table, and Paul introduced me to the bearded man, Andre Dubus, and I proposed that the three of us should drink up my first fiction honorarium. It didn’t take long for three thirsty men to put away a double sawbuck. When I told Andre the money was for a story in Confrontation, he looked as though he couldn’t figure out what I was talking about. I thought, damn, here’s a guy who publishes in The New Yorker and Playboy and Esquire, a good many books of fiction to his name. I felt shame, trying to distinguish myself before these veterans, so I shut up about it.

Next day, however, Peggy Rambach sought me out on the campus and introduced herself, her smile big and gentle. “I’m Andre’s wife,” she said and explained that he had finally figured out afterwards what I’d been referring to about Confrontation—that it was a literary journal, not a personal challenge. They were in a house off campus, but he had asked her to borrow the magazine from me so he could read my story. Needless to say, I scurried to my room for a copy of it.

I did not expect anything. I was a beginner, but I did know a little bit about the writing life. I knew that only a fool expects anybody or anything but hard work to make his luck. But Peggy sought me out again the next morning. Peggy’s blue eyes were smiling. She told me they both loved the story, that Andre wanted to send it to his agent and his editor at Godine. He told her to tell me that didn’t mean they’d take me on, but it did mean I would get a fair read. He had also taken it upon himself to get hold of my workshop story and read it, too, and said it was powerful. And he asked if I wanted to meet for drinks that night.

Except for one or two teachers when I was an undergraduate years ago, I’d never met any writers before, certainly never sat and drank with them. That evening as we drank and talked, I made a startling discovery. I don’t recall how we came round to it—maybe because we revealed that we both had gone to Christian Brothers boys’ schools—but I found out that Andre Dubus was the author of a story I had read fourteen years before in the Best American Short Stories 1970. I had remembered the story and its title, though not the name of the author.

It is a measure of the power of that story, of the effect it had on me, that it was still fresh and sharp in my memory. It was entitled, “If They Knew Yvonne,” a story about a young man sorting through the sexual confusion of his boyhood to a realization that it is not sexual pleasure that is “sinful” but irresponsible sexual behavior.

I still remember my astonishment, seated amidst a group of faculty and students at a table by the window of Julio’s, looking down over the street-lighted road, making the connection that this man had written that story which had so powerfully affected me, had literally influenced not merely my writing style but my life. I knew it was necessary for me to commemorate this moment, this meeting, in some way. All I could think of was to propose that I conduct an interview with him. He agreed.

I remember that night ended with a handful of us standing out on the avenue in a circle around Andre while he, with great passion and fine voice, sang “Something Cool.” It was a memorable evening, but I woke the next day thinking, Gee, maybe he’ll forget that he agreed to the interview, maybe it was just the charge of the moment.

But he didn’t forget. The interview started that next day, and it stretched out, in person and by post, over that whole winter. I got hold of all his books of stories—some of them he gave me, and when I look at the inscription he wrote in Adultery and Other Choices, I still can see him leaning on the fender of a parked car to write it, and I get a lump in my throat: “For Tom Kennedy, with my thanks and more: affection, new friend, and wishes for much good for you—Andre, 23 July ’84, Montpelier.” And in The Times Are Never So Bad: “For Tom, with near impassioned hope and with confidence—I can’t match verbs with those two nouns—I’m wishing you well with work and life, too—All best, Andre, 1 August 1984.”

Any writer who has ever worked alone for any length of time without any other writer friends, let alone gifted and distinguished ones, will know what that kind of gesture can mean. I read Andre’s books of stories hungrily, jotting down every question that came to mind as I read. They are powerful stories, a powerful body of work, and I wound up with well over a hundred questions, each written on a separate sheet of paper. I figured I could mail the pages to him, and he could roll them into his typewriter one after the other and type out his answers (this was before many of us were working with computers). Or, if he preferred, he could write his answers by hand. This was pretty heady stuff for me, getting such a fine writer to sit down and write out answers to all my questions as a fledgling writer—it was like the most in-depth private tutorial imaginable, all free.

However, he neither typed nor wrote out his answers in longhand. He sat down with my questions and his tape recorder, and he began to respond on tape. The first cassette arrived in late winter. In all there would be six of them, full up, each of them a different brand or color, and these would transcribe to over a hundred forty pages of typescript. Andre Dubus had given me over six full concentrated hours of his time and thought.

What’s more, he did introduce me to his editor and agent; the former politely declined my collection of stories, the latter took it on and was my agent for some time. What came or did not come of this, however, was not the point. For me, the point was the belief that this accomplished, distinguished writer had extended to me for no reason other than kindness, a wish to help a guy who was a little younger and struggling to learn the craft.

Andre never, not for a second, not on those tapes, not in his company, not over Dos Equis or Stoli, lorded it over you with his success or put himself in a station above you as a writer.  He was too big to be small. When you sat and drank and ate with him, he made you feel you were his equal as a writer, that you could be, would be, that you shared the same place where he lived and worked.

This is the kind of nourishment that most beginning writers are starving for. I had been working at the craft for many years by then, but that was the first real taste of it I ever had. The writing life, we all know, is not an easy one: no one asked you to do it, and no one much cares if you quit, and only a few are much interested in what you produce. As Dubus put it in my interview with him,

I think most writers quit between the ages of twenty and thirty for various reasons. They are alone then unless they have exceptional parents; even if they have very loving and tolerant parents, they still know in their heart of hearts that their parents wonder about what in the fuck they are doing. Unless they live in a community of writers, like at a graduate school, they don’t have friends who really understand what they are doing. They don’t get published. They work and of course, don’t get money for it. There is no one to set the alarm clock for. There is no one who cares whether they get there to work, no one who can threaten them with firing or reward them with money, and you put all that on one poor young man or woman’s back, and it takes an awful lot of courage, because it comes down to that person believing in him or herself and saying, I will do it. While having a job that supports me. And you finally do publish in something as lovely as Tendril or Ploughshares, for example, and you call your mother or father and tell them, and they say, ‘What’s that?’ I think that is why young writers can be persuaded so easily to change things to be in The New Yorker. Not for the goddamn money. What’s three thousand dollars going to do? You can’t live in Mexico on it and write. Not for long anyway. Won’t change your life. I think they do it because it takes care of those blank faces when you say, ‘Yes, I’ve published,’ and they say, ‘Where?’ and you say, The New Yorker, and they say, ‘Ooh! You must be real!’

Andre Dubus knew and cared how it was for those who had not yet come as far as he, and he was always reaching down to lend a hand up. From that enormously generous response he gave me, with his many hours of answering my questions, not only did I learn a great deal about the craft of writing, but I also gathered sufficient material for a book—my first published, hardcover book, as well as material for a third of my doctoral thesis.

Andre came to the reading with which I completed my requirements for graduation from the MFA program in January 1985. I read the story which had introduced us, “The Sins of Generals,” and which he shortly after my graduation selected for inclusion in an anthology he edited titled Into the Silence, American Stories (Green Street Press, 1988), where he gave it the honor of standing along with stories by writers like Gina Berriault, Mark Costello, Susan Dodd, Leonard Gardner, Philip F. O’Connor, my MFA mentor Gordon Weaver, Thomas Williams, Tobias Wolff, and a handful of others who were beginners like myself—an acknowledgment that was worth a lot to that dry season.

So I read that story for my graduation. In it there are several references to vodka martinis, and when I was done, he came over to me and said, “All those vodka martinis made me thirsty. Want to go down to Julio’s?”

That night we drank a lot of vodka, Stolichnaya with peppered ice cubes, and we talked and laughed until morning when we took a cab up the hill again, and he hung out the window laughing as I slipped and slid along the icy path to the door of my dormitory building.

That is how I like to remember him.

A year later was the last time I saw him. He was passing through Montpelier one summer day in 1986,  by which time I was teaching there, and a bunch of us went out to breakfast with him. I remember saying goodbye to him. He was behind the wheel of his car. I remember he had the sniffles. I don’t remember what words we exchanged. I remember he and Peggy and their daughter Cadence drove off, and I stood there waving after him with a couple of friends.

Later that year, he was run down by a car. He had been driving home and stopped to offer aid to some accident victims on the highway. A woman was standing in the road bleeding. As he went to help her, another car came zooming down on them. He threw her to safety and got hit himself. He lost one leg from mid-knee and most of the use of the other, and spent a long time in the hospital.

In the ensuing thirteen years, I spoke to him on the phone a couple of times, we exchanged a few letters. His literary reputation, the recognition of the power of his work grew, the prizes accumulated as did praise from the most distinguished writers of his generation, the generation before and the generation coming—reviews by John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Hortense Calisher, Tobias Wolff, Tim O’Brien, Elmore Leonard, ….  His Selected Stories were published, his books of essays, his fine last collection, Dancing After Hours, and all along it was clear that he was fighting to come to terms with the fact that he was—as he called it—“crippled,” a man who had been a captain in the United States Marines, who ran, golfed, trained, now in his fifties and sixties had to face life in a wheelchair. He did what only a great writer would do in this situation; he wrote about it, not with self-pity but with quiet objectivity, and the spiritual power of his insights, of his presentation of the lives he wrote about sharpened, focused ever in toward that core of existence he sought in his art.

To be continued….