Revisiting Dubus

I’ve been re-reading Andre Dubus’s Selected Stories this week as part of my MFA work. (Anyone remember when I almost gave Heather a heart attack by mentioning Dubus and J.K. Rowling in the same sentence?) One of the things I’m paying great attention to is how he describes the Merrimack Valley, and Bradford College, in particular.

Something I didn’t know about Dubus, or something I knew but had forgotten, is that he was not originally from New England. He grew up in Louisiana and only moved up here in his thirties, once he’d started his family. This particular outsider’s perspective, I believe, allowed him to write the particulars of the Merrimack Valley, and of Bradford, in a way that I, as a native New Englander, have, as yet, been unable to do.

During my MFA program’s January residency, we spent a fair amount of time in workshop discussing defamiliarization. In particular, as it pertained to my writing, there was some concern that I needed to step back and learn how to better describe some of my locations, so that readers unfamiliar with Bradford, or with Greater Lowell, might have a clearer picture painted for them.

Dubus plucks out these great little details about Bradford that really make it live on the page for me. He uses, in at least two stories (“Townies” and “The Fat Girl”), the little factoid that on the campus there stood at least one of each kind of tree native to New England. He gives sparse details to describe the brick and iron of the fence surrounding the campus, a terribly important icon of the campus, I think, that I’ve never bothered to write about, and he paints a terrific picture of the Tupelo Hall dorms, describing the glassed-in common areas in a way that I’ve been struggling to achieve.

And then there’s his simple description of the bridge over Tupelo Pond in “Townies”, and the security guard’s approach to it. It’s just marvelous.

Every graduating student in my program is required to give a craft lecture or seminar during their final residency. I’ve known for some months that I wanted to discuss multiple points-of-view in short fiction. Spending some quality time with Dubus’s work again has me thinking that I might focus my lecture on “Townies” in particular. That’s how much I value this man’s work.

If you’ve never read any Dubus, stop reading this drivel and go out and get yourself some. And if you want to read about the man’s life, which is almost as interesting as his writing, there are a number of great articles out there, including one on Salon.com and a great piece on Andre and his faith, reprinted from Our Sunday Visitor at AmyWelborn.com.