Week of February 16th, 2004 | Andres Dubus
WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE
Andre Dubus, the master short story writer, toiled in relative obscurity during much of his lifetime. Though known primarily for his stories, Mr. Dubus also wrote essays and novellas. His only novel, THE LIEUTENANT, was published in 1967.
Though publishers clamored for novels, Mr. Dubus wrote what his stories asked of him. Sometimes the story wanted to be seven pages, sometimes twenty;
occasionally the story turned into a novella. In 1984 Crown Publishers issued a collection of four of Mr. Dubus's novellas titled
WE DON'T LIVE HERE
ANYMORE. The novellas in the collection were originally published by David Godine.
THE PRETTY GIRL, a novella published in 1983, has been dropped from the new book published by Random House/Vintage. The three remaining stories deal with the life of two couples; Hank and Edith Allison, and Jack and Terry Linhart. Both couples married too young, both feel trapped in the decisions of their youth.
WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, the title novella, was written in 1975. I remember vividly the winter I discovered Andre's work. I bought a copy of THE TIMES ARE NEVER SO BAD at a small bookstore in Bexley, Ohio. I read the collection of stories with a growing sense of awe at what I was reading. I felt that Andre had been following me around, taking notes on my faults and shortcomings. I went back to the beginning and read all of his books, starting with
SEPARATE FLIGHTS, the original book published by Godine that contained WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE.
In the fall of 1984 I wrote Andre a letter, telling him how much his work meant to me, and how I had shared his books with my friends. I sent the letter to David Godine in Boston, not expecting a reply. On February 5, 1985 I returned home from work to find a solitary letter in my mailbox. I took the letter inside my house and saw it was sent by Andre Dubus from his home in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The letter was three pages long, and would be the first of many letters that Andre and I exchanged from 1985 until his death in 1999.
Now, when I discuss Andre's work with people, I normally tell them that he wrote a story titled KILLINGS in 1980. That eighteen page story was the basis for Todd Field's excellent adaptation that became the film IN THE BEDROOM, starring Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson.
Now Andre's back again in a film done by Larry Gross titled WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, starring Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause, and Naomi Watts. It is difficult to
separate the film from the novellas, Mr. Gross has done a masterful job of lifting the dialogue from the stories into the film. The film has the feel of a play, relying on dialogue and the tension generated by the fine actors as they deal with the lives of their characters. And, as always, Dubus's work is the engine that fascinates us as readers and moviegoers.
Andre's son, Andre Dubus lll wrote the introduction to the new collection. He also wrote
OF SAND AND FOG, the novel that captured the country's attention with its brilliant depiction of the American Dream gone horribly wrong. The film adaptation starred Ben Kingsley as Colonel Behrani, and Jennifer Connelly as Kathy.
Many of the people that saw HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG had read the book. The same thing, unfortunately, cannot be said of WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. Thankfully this is beginning to change. Andre Dubus, the father, deserves to be read. It is that simple.
The epitaph to the novella WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE reads, 'Come see us again sometime; nobody's home but us, and we don't live here anymore.' The quote is attributed to 'a friend, drunk one night.'
The story chronicles the lives of two couples as they write, drink, and raise children in a small college town in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts. Hank Allison is the writer; he struggles to publish his work, and he does not believe in monogamy. Edith is his wife; she is intelligent, beautiful, and the life she shares with Hank and their daughter, Sharon, is much more attractive than the lives of Jack and Terry Linhart.
Jack and Terry have two children, Natasha and Sean, and their lives are filled with the normal frustrations of married life. There's never enough money, neither spouse appreciates the sacrifices the other makes, and they are trying desperately to hold on to love's
As the story unfolds the two couples follow their passions and break their marital vows. Dubus shows with masterful detail the initial euphoria of sexual gratification, followed by the inevitable problems that develop as the boundaries of intimacy are violated. No one escapes unscathed, not Hank and Edith, not Jack and Terry, and certainly not their children.
In one heartbreaking scene towards the end of the novella Natasha gives her younger brother Sean a quarter to go into a store so that she can talk to her father about the fights she hears between her mother and her father. She wants to know if they are going to get divorced. This is the downside of adultery, yet Dubus will not allow us to judge his characters, for in them we see the potential weakness in ourselves.
ADULTERY is the second novella that the screenplay is based upon. This novella appeared in 1977 in the collection ADULTERY AND OTHER CHOICES, also published by Godine.
This novella finds the four protagonists dealing with the effect that adultery has had on their individual lives. Edith emerges as the most interesting character in ADULTERY. She has survived Hank's betrayals and
committed her own transgressions, but rather than fall into a bottomless pit she finds love and redemption with Joe, a priest who has left his vocation to find love with a woman. Joe is also dying of cancer.
In a scene from WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, Terry says, 'even adultery has morality.' In ADULTERY Dubus shows us the betrayal a priest can make with his God. Dubus writes of Joe, 'In his struggle to rid himself of the pose, he assumed another: he acted like a priest who was about to hold the body of Christ in his hands, while all the time, even as he raised the host and then the
chalice, his heart swelled and beat for love for himself.'
No one gets off easy in the world of Andre Dubus, for this is the essence of what life is; we must suffer the consequences of our behavior, for that is the only pathway to true joy.
It is interesting to note that Andre Dubus was a man that loved life. He was a
sensuous man who took in all that life had to offer. He loved women, he loved his children, and he loved writing. Not necessarily in that order.
He was a man who lived in a wheelchair the last thirteen years of his life. He had much to feel sorry for himself about, but he would not go there. He preferred to teach us how to live with his storytelling. He loved his characters. He was interested in their lives and what happened to them.
Some of his characters appear in several of his stories. Peter Jackman, the protagonist of THE WINTER FATHER, had an affair with Edith that did not last, nor did his marriage. Readers of the novella ADULTERY may find this fact helpful. Peter is an afternoon radio personality whose audience is primarily housewives.
He shares his sorrow of only seeing his children on Wednesday nights and weekends with these women. He becomes overly protective of his children. At one point he says, 'There was a satisfaction in preventing even danger that did not exist.'
Andre Dubus cared about Peter Jackman and his children. He was concerned about the effect that divorce had on children, divorce being one of the consequences of adultery. In one scene Peter sits in his car after his children have returned to their mother's house and he cleans the inside of the windshield, 'as he scraped the middle and the right side, he realized the grey ice curling and falling from the glass was the frozen breath of his children.'
The third novella in the collection is FINDING A GIRL IN AMERICA, published by Godine in 1980. The movie uses little of the story, which revolves around Hank Allison's life after his marriage to Edith is over.
Hank and Jack have remained friends and love each other in spite of all they have gone through together. Hank is struggling to find peace in his post-divorce life and in one memorable scene Hank gets in a bar fight and enjoys the beating he inflicts on one of the patrons. Andre
Dubus was careful to keep autobiography out of his work, but truth be told, Andre and his son, Andre lll, both enjoyed the
occasional bar room brawl. After Hank's fight, Dubus writes, 'He wonders what men without friends do on the day after they've been drunken assholes.' Larry Gross used FINDING A GIRL IN AMERICA to resolve some of the issues in Jack and Terry's story.
The reader might think that the story ends with FINDING A GIRL IN AMERICA, but that is not the case. Adultery continued to be a theme in Dubus's work. In DANCING AFTER HOURS, Andre's masterpiece, adultery is present in several of the stories. In THE TIMING OF SIN
Dubus gives us a profound look at LuAnn Arceneaux and the inflammatory nature of her sexual desire. LuAnn is married to Ted Briggs, a Vietnam veteran, a man she has made a family with, a man she is in love with. LuAnn nearly has an affair with a man she barely knows, but a man she feels great sympathy for. She tells all of this to her friend Marcia on a long run they take together. LuAnn says, 'It was the jeans that saved me. If I was wearing a skirt I could have just pulled up. There wouldn't have been those seconds when I was only touching my own skin. And you can't be saved by jeans.
So it was God, grace; and I don't think of Him with eyes, glancing away from all the horror and seeing what I was doing and stopping me before He turned away again to look aghast at the world. I don't know how it happens.'
Marsha lowered her head and smiled.
'Some people would just say you were being good.'
'What I was being was hot. If I take all the credit for getting out of it, I have to take all the blame for getting into it, too. That's too simple, and too unbearable. My job is to try, and to be vigilant, and keep hoping. I need my jacket, and some water.'
They turned and walked to the car.
This is the world of Andre Dubus. It is a world we can all learn from. We should be grateful that in a movie environment filled with comic book characters, car wrecks, and teen-dramas a movie like WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE finds its way into movie theaters. Don't stop with the film, read the books. Andre Dubus deserves a wider reading audience.
A good place to start is his COLLECTED STORIES published by Godine in 1988.
Below is an in-depth interview with Andre Dubus lll. In part one we discuss HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. In part two we discuss the work of his father, including WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE.
David Denby, in the August 30, 2004 issue of The New Yorker, called
WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE 'easily the best American movie so far this year'. He goes on to say, 'Are there many moviegoers out there for this kind
of impassioned work? The artists have done their job. Now it's the
audience 'turn.' Let's show Hollywood that we want intelligent films. See the
movie, then buy the book.