BOOK REVIEW / Hard knocks, and hard work: 'Broken Vessels' - Andre Dubus: Picador, 15.99
Saturday 09 January 1993
Broken Vessels is about learning to live with the irreparable. Unable to walk, Dubus adapts to a wheelchair; unable to run, he learns to achieve the same fine buzz of adrenalin by shadowboxing on the sundeck while singing along with old Louis Armstrong records; and when his wife leaves him and wins legal custody of their two daughters, he learns to accept what little parental time the courts allow - so many assigned weekends a year, one day at a time. 'The family court system in Massachussetts appears to define a father as a sperm bank with a checkbook,' he writes.
'You can't make a new vessel out of an old one,' Dubus's physical therapist tells him. You can only try to remember who you were before your body loaned you this shape that will not last. You can never recover what you've lost, Dubus concludes; you can only try to remember who you've always been.
In many ways, Broken Vessels is a deeply religious book. Repeatedly invoking the symbols and sacraments of Catholicism, it spends more time describing abstract qualities like spirit, endurance and forgiveness than it does relating actual events. As a result, the essays often contain infuriating lapses, especially when Dubus is expected to lean outside his own frame of reference and describe what's happening in the lives of people around him. For example, he powerfully describes what the collision's jarring dislocation felt like, and his consequent forgiveness of the driver, but he never mentions who the driver was, why he did what he did, or even whether he was injured or not. Later, Dubus recalls the afternoon his ex-wife, seeking custody of their daughters, arrived at his house accompanied by a policeman, but he never describes any of the crucial events which led up to this perhaps unnecessary confrontation.
Particularly in the essays about his family or women, or in his appreciations of hunting with the boys and amateur athletics, Dubus shares with some of his fellow American minimalists an unfortunate tendency to a sort of vain male sentimentality. Complicated terms like fatherhood, manhood, justice and courage consistently distribute a warm, even glow of approbation, like religious or moral exempla.
Despite his occasional sermonettes, however, Dubus remains one of America's best and most prolific short-story writers, and Broken Vessels contains as much good work as anything ever written. Strangely enough, the most powerful and beautifully written essays in this book are the least intimate: an account of a coast-to-coast train journey, an appreciation of the novelist Richard Yates, and a brief series of articles about the craft of short-story writing which, like Dubus's own injuries, proves to be something of an exercise in living without things.
'We short-story writers are spared some of the major temptations,' Dubus explains. 'We don't make money for ourselves or anybody else, so the people who make money from writers leave us alone. The act of writing alone is all I can muster the courage to face in the morning: if my livelihood and the expectations of publishers depended on it, I doubt that I could do it at all. So, like the poets, short-story writers live in a safer world. There is no one to hurry a manuscript for; our only debt is to ourselves, and to those stories that speak to us from wherever they live. . .' Earlier Dubus confesses; 'I have always known that fiction had little effect on the world; that if it did, young men would not have gone to war after The Iliad.'
Dubus, like the characters in his best stories, doesn't seek to prevail in the material world, but only in the abstract regions of his own heart. It's this sense of spiritual
integrity which gives Dubus's work its power and conviction, as well as its refusal to be always specific. In his finest work, however (such as this book's opening essay, 'Cut Like A Lamb', or his brilliant novella about male rage and female incomprehension, 'The Pretty Girl', included in his Selected Stories) it's the hard, mundane reality of middle America which Dubus has always been most successful at reporting.
He is, along with Raymond Carver, one of the few important American writers who knows what life is like outside the middle-class suburbs and universities. He admires the hard work men and women are willing to do to improve their lives and the lives of their families, and he despises the ugly urban sprawl America gives them as their reward. For all these reasons, Dubus's work will be of as much interest on this side of the Atlantic as it is on his own.
Like Boston, New York has beautiful women to look at, though in New York the women, in general, are made up more harshly, and they dress more self-consciously . . . In New York the women walk as though in the rain; in Boston many women stroll. But then most new Yorkers walk like people in rain, leaving the stroll to police officers, hookers, beggars and wandering homeless, and teenagers who are yet unharried by whatever preoccupations preoccupy so many from their driving preoccupation with loneliness and death.
Women were on the Plaza, their pace slower as they neared the building, and looking to my right I saw a lovely one. She could have been thirty, or five years on either side of it. She wore a dark brown miniskirt, or perhaps it was black; I saw it and her strong legs in net stockings for only a moment, because they were in my natural field of vision from my chair. But a woman's face is what I love. She was in profile and had soft thick brown hair swaying at her shoulders as she strode with purpose but not hurry, only grace. She was about forty feet away, enough distance so that, when I looked up, I saw her face against the sky.
'Skipper,' I said. 'Accidently push me into her.'
The forward motion of her legs and arms did not pause, but she immediately turned to me and, as immediately, her lips spread in a smile, and her face softened with it, and her eyes did, all at once from a sudden release in her heart that was soft too in her voice: 'I heard that.'
She veered toward me, smiling still, with brightened eyes.
'It was a compliment,' I said.
The Skipper was pushing my chair, Philip was beside me, and she was coming closer. Then she said: 'I know.'
She angled back to her first path, as though it were painted there for her to follow, and Philip said: 'That never happens in New York.'
'It's the wheelchair,' I said. 'I'm harmless.'
But I knew that was not true. There was no time to explain it then, and anyway I wanted to hold her gift for a while before giving it away with words.
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