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James T. KeaneSeptember 12, 2023
Andre Dubus III and Vadim Perelman on the set of “House of Sand and Fog” (IMDB)

To be the writerly son of a writerly father is not always the easiest vocation. When that parent is as famous as Andre Dubus, it must be doubly difficult. Throw in the fact that Dubus pere was by most accounts pretty bad at parenting, and you end up fishing in some dark waters indeed. But who knows: Maybe it can make for great art? One might ask Andre Dubus III.

The son of the famous short story writer, Dubus III has managed to carve out an illustrious career as both a novelist and short story writer. His latest novel, Such Kindness, was released in June (look for a review by Joseph Peschel in America soon). It received a glowing endorsement in The New York Times from Isaac Fitzgerald, whose memoir, Dirtbag, Massachusetts, was reviewed earlier this year by America’s national correspondent, Michael J. O’Loughlin.

The elder Dubus left his wife and four children for one of his writing students when the children were still young (Dubus III was 10 years old). As a result, the family of five “was forced to live in squalor on a diet of sodas and Frito casseroles in one cheap rented house after another in the failed mill town of Haverhill, Mass.,” Ron Hansen wrote in his 2011 review of Dubus III’s memoir, Townie. Meanwhile, the senior Dubus was “increasingly becoming an acclaimed writer of graceful, sensitive, acutely observed short stories during this period, but he was stunningly oblivious to what was happening to his abandoned children.”

The son of the famous short story writer, Andre Dubus III has managed to carve out an illustrious career as both a novelist and short story writer.

Though Townie can be a difficult read, Dubus III has said in recent years that he does not necessarily hold too much ill will toward his father. “I’m no authority on forgiveness, but I do believe that my father, who was very young when he became a husband and a father, in his early 20s, did the best that he knew how to do at the time, which, of course, is not the same as doing the best he could do,” he told Franklin Freeman in a 2018 interview for America. “This is true for all of us, though, isn’t it? And that’s where the potential for growth comes in. None of us are exempt from screwing up.”

Dubus the younger simply believes his father, to paraphrase Yeats, chose the perfection of his work over the perfection of his life. “I believe strongly, and I have a hunch my father would agree with me on this, that in his 62 years on the planet, my father put the very best part of himself into his writing. Everything else, including his wife and children, came after that,” Dubus III said. “A close second I would add. But after that.” His father, who had been badly wounded in a car accident at 50, died in 1999.

The son published his first short story, “Forky” (no relation to the “Toy Story 4” character), when he was just 23; it was followed seven years later by his short story collection, The Cage Keeper and Other Stories. He published his debut novel, Bluesman, in 1993.

Dubus III hit the big time with his 1999 novel, House of Sand and Fog, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller (and an Oprah’s Book Club selection to boot). Dubus also wrote the screenplay for the Academy Award-nominated film adaptation. It was followed by The Garden of Last Days in 2008, Dirty Love in 2013, Gone So Long in 2018 and now Such Kindness.

Dubus fils also wrote for America on two occasions, the first time a full decade before House of Sand and Fog. His 1989 review of Peter Matthiessen’s sprawling short story collection, On the River Styx, is a writer’s review in every sense of the word, focusing as much on Matthiessen’s craft as on his characters or themes. Reading it, I felt like I was back in an M.F.A. workshop with a master teacher, one with an eye for a writer’s gifts as well as follies. Dubus calls the title story “one of the most sophisticated in structure and scope, and purely focused on style.” Another story is praised for “Mattheiessen’s stylistic strength: his descriptions of nature.”

In a 1995 review of Alice Munro’s Open Secrets, Dubus III quoted Nadine Gordimer on writing short stories: “Whether it sprawls or neatly bites its own tail…to write one is to express from a situation in the exterior or interior world the life-giving drop—sweat, tear, semen, saliva—that will spread with intensity on the page, burn a hole in it.” He praised Munro for her “brilliant and unforgettable stories,” ones that “manage not only to ‘sprawl’ but to also ‘neatly bite their own tail.’”

What is next for Dubus III? A collection of personal essays, Ghost Dogs, is scheduled for a 2024 release.

Among the elements for which his father’s fiction was noted were its strongly Catholic themes. Did the father’s faith affect his son? “While I personally do not believe in a God or some all-knowing, all-powerful entity who knows and cares about me, I do believe in the divine. I believe there is something invisible and maybe even benevolent in and around us at all times all our lives long,” Dubus III told America. “Until my wife and I had our first child 25 years ago, I do not believe I had prayed even once. Though I have been doing it daily for years for our now three children. I am not an atheist, nor do I believe that anyone’s listening either, but still, I pray.”

Andre Dubus III: "I am not an atheist, nor do I believe that anyone’s listening either, but still, I pray.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Unfinished Masterpiece,” by Alfonso Sasieta. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, this summer the Catholic Book Club is reading and discussing Mary Doria Russell’s novel, The Sparrow. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Vatican II’s secret priest-journalist: The story of Xavier Rynne

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

The mystery of Thomas Merton’s death—and the witness of America magazine’s poetry editor

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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