Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Andre Dubus' Hard-Luck Story

While preparing to post Edward J. Delaney's contribution to the "My First Time" feature here at the blog a few weeks ago, I spent a little time at his website and discovered this clip from a film he directed and produced: The Times Were Never So Bad: The Life of Andre Dubus.

Delaney explains the project at the film's website:
      In 2006 I began work on the film The Times Were Never So Bad: The Life of Andre Dubus, an 86-minute documentary that chronicles the life of the great short story writer Andre Dubus (1936-1999).
      I interviewed dozens of people in Dubus’s hometown of Haverhill, Mass., and beyond; in the late fall of that year I departed on a 9,500-mile circuit around the country that took me to Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming and California, speaking to writers who knew Dubus, to friends and former students, and family. It was a wonderful trip.  It is, I think, a “talking” project, one in which the insights of authors such as Tobias Wolff, Richard Russo, James Lee Burke and Andre Dubus III illuminate Dubus’s writing. His family members helped underline how closely Dubus’s life and work were intertwined.

Further Googling eventually led me to an article from the New York Times Magazine written two years after Dubus' accident. Here's a vivid description of what happened that night on the interstate:
       In the early hours of July 23, 1986, Dubus was returning to Haverhill from Boston, where he'd been visiting bars in the Combat Zone, a neighborhood of some rugged renown, in order to research a story he was writing about a hooker.  ''I'd never been there,'' he says. ''And I can't write about anyplace I haven't smelled.''
       It was a bright night, and there was little traffic. Nearing home, on a four-lane segment of I-93 North near the town of Wilmington, he had no trouble spotting a car ahead of him, with its lights off, stalled in the third lane. Another car was parked on the right shoulder; someone was already summoning the state troopers from the callbox. ''So I thought, 'I'll just go into the speed lane, pass by and see if there's anyone hurt in the driver's seat,'' Dubus says. When he saw a woman standing beside the car, crying and bleeding, he stopped, pulling over against the center guard rail.
       The woman's name was Luz Santiago; she was Puerto Rican, and neither she nor her brother Luis, who appeared from the other side of the car, spoke much English. ''As I remember, he was well-built,'' Dubus says. ''He was 23. He said, 'Por favor, senor. Please, help. No habla ingles.' I don't remember him ever saying anything else after that.''
       The Santiagos had hit a motorcycle that had been left lying in the road, and it appeared the motorcyclist was trapped beneath the car; a dark, viscous liquid was beginning to pool at their feet. ''I was sure it was blood,'' Dubus says. ''It was oil from the crankcase. But we don't know that then. Me and Luz Santiago, we don't know.
       ''I thought, 'Oh, man, I'm going to have to look. I just had an image of somebody down there really...flat. All I wanted was to get Luz Santiago off the road, lie her down, stop her bleeding, treat her for shock. Take care of that, then go look under the car and wait for the state troopers. I started waving down another car, you know? Because I wanted somebody to go with me. Well, the woman driving that car ran over us.''
       Luis Santiago was killed. Luz Santiago, who suffered relatively minor injuries, told the doctor that Dubus had pushed her out of the way just before he was hit himself. The woman driving, who was not drunk, not on drugs, and who remained at the scene, escaped prosecution. She never spoke to Dubus afterward, never sent a card, for which, he says, ''I hated her for a long time.''
       Dubus draws an occasional deep breath, or his voice will quicken against the strain of a painful detail. But overall, it is a tale told with equanimity, even restraint. ''It's funny,'' he says. ''I don't regret it,'' and then he talks about the motorcyclist, whom the police found stumbling beside the highway, drunk. He'd fallen off his bike, and confused, fearful of arrest, had left it where it lay. For that, he served a year in jail.
       ''He never tried to deny it. He made a videotape for the police, and he never changed his story. He was a stand-up guy,'' Dubus says. ''His wife had fallen in love with another guy and left him, left his kids. He got drunk. I met him. I said, 'Your kids think you're some kind of outlaw or something?' He said, 'No.' He said, 'I explained it to them.' ''
       In court, Dubus spoke on the man's behalf.

I've read the bulk of Dubus' short stories and hope to read his novels and collected essays someday soon.  Dubus sits on the same shelf as contemporaries Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff, writers of fiction that writhes with muscles, occasionally throws a punch, but will clean you up and buy you a drink afterward.  The stories have heart and kindness beneath their tough exteriors.

As his son Andre Dubus III notes in that clip from Open Road Media, "He wrote so that he wouldn't die before he was dead."  What a great line!  It's a maxim that all writers adhere to whether they know it or not: we write to stay alive.

Still, it makes me melancholy just thinking about the tough times Dubus had to go through.  In his darkest moment on the shoulder of that interstate, he was only trying to be a Good Samaritan.  For his actions, he was nearly killed and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.  It's the sad stuff that fiction is made of.

And finally, I leave you with a quote from Dubus himself which I found in an essay by Joshua Bodwell at Fiction Writers Review which cautions us not to read too much autobiography into Dubus' fiction:
      In the end, no one--no scholar, nor his children, family, or friends, not even the author himself--can truly give us impartial insight into Dubus’s fiction. Fiction need only be true to itself.
      On February 23, 1999, the day before Dubus died, he gave a brief interview to Greg Garrett. When asked how he wrote dialogue that is “so real,” Dubus insisted that it wasn’t in the least bit real; it was, he said, human speech purified to a poetic rhythm. “We’re not trying to be real,” Dubus told the interviewer, on what he did not know then was the last afternoon of his life. “We’re trying to be better than real. We’re trying to be true.”

No comments:

Post a Comment