BOOK REVIEW / Hard knocks, and hard work: 'Broken Vessels' - Andre Dubus: Picador, 15.99

IN THE final section of this new collection of his essays, Andre Dubus recounts the accident that cost him his legs, and the subsequent years of painful recovery which may have cost him much more. On a summer night in 1986 Dubus was driving from Boston to his home in Haverhill, Massachusetts, when he pulled over to help a man and woman stranded on the side of Route 93. A few minutes later he and the man, Luis Santiago, were struck by an automobile; Santiago died, Dubus was crippled for life.

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.

Extract

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence