Thursday, May 25, 2017

Andre Dubus: The writing doctor with healing powers

(A piece I wrote from the Austin American-Statesman shortly after the famed short story writer's death in 1999.)

Special to the Austin American-Statesman

The day after Andre Dubus died I was discussing his short story, "The Doctor,'' with a student. In the tale, a doctor discovers a boy caught under a heavy slab in shallow water and can think of no means of rescue. He must watch the boy drown.

It's about defining yourself by your profession, by your outward self, and dealing with the inevitable failures.

Louisiana-born and bred, Dubus made a name for himself writing about the small and large pains of ordinary lives. That he is often mentioned in the same breath as Chekhov speaks to the truth to be found in his fiction.

Tobias Wolff said Dubus' writing is . . . ``driven by the conviction that the possibility of freedom and grace, even heroism, abides in every life.''

The title character of ``The Doctor'' responds to his failure by preparing for future heroism. Too late his mind hits upon the solution. He cuts a small section of garden hose through which the boy could have reached life-giving air.

In 1986, 11 years after that story was published, Dubus became just such a hero. The burly ex-marine and devout Catholic stopped to aid stranded motorists only to be struck by another car. Dubus lost one leg and the use of the other, but was able to push the woman driver of the first car to safety.

When I met Dubus in 1993, I was a graduate student studying creative writing at Southwest Texas State University. I was impressed and asked to work long distance with Dubus on the book of short stories that would be my ticket.

Two years later I was handed a cassette tape, special delivery from Dubus.

I somehow managed to slide the tape into a player. I pushed a button and Dubus was in the room. He had a cold and was grieving the loss of a friend, but was ready to read my work with a critical eye.

The advice was big and small. Tape your writing and listen to it for rhythm. Be careful about imprecise simile. Tack your stories to the wall so they can be viewed as wholes not just individual pages. Trust your material. Read Alice Munro.

``She is amazing, astonishing, astounding. All of those A's,'' he said. ``She has given me the confidence to know stories don't have to do what we've always been told they have to do. They just have to be."

``I know too many good writers who can't handle rejection,'' he said. ``Don't be one of those. You've got great talent here and things should work out well for you. Like the rest of us you'll probably have to have a day job. But, so what? We volunteered."

With that Dubus signed off, but let the tape continue to run. He silently turned on a radio and a snappy Big Band tune filled the air. His wheelchair scraped harshly across the floor. His fingers shuffled through papers and began to do what came naturally. He wrote.