Thursday, 1 July 2010

Literary Gumbo

What a joy it is to come upon another splendid new patch in the crazy quilt of American fiction. It’s one of the mysteries of American literature—loose and under organized as it is—that you never know where or when literary lightning is going to strike next.
On your continental map, stick a pin now in Lake Charles, La. and mark the flag. Andre Dubus (say it do-BUSE). The Last Worthless Evening: Four Novellas and Two Stories (David R. Godine, $15.95) is simply luminous in the way it fixes a Cajun Catholic sensibility on his original turf and his adopted Merrimack River country—mainly blue collar but marvelously cognizant of the Great American Lie that we are allegedly a classless society.
The title of the collection refers not to a single tale but to his own collation of an epigraph from William Faulkner’s The Bear—“that whole hopeful continent dedicated as a refuge and sanctuary of liberty and freedom from what you called the old world’s worthless evening”—and his and Faulkner’s despair at the hopeful continent having become “the same worthless tideless rock cooling in the last crimson evening.”
Surely the supreme irony of American history is that the country which preened itself to the world two centuries ago as an antidote to the ancien regime has itself, largely unwittingly, become the most obdurate and ungracious of ancien regimes locked in its Unenlightenment.
When Faulkner whistled in the darkness of his Nobel acceptance speech that he expected mankind not only to endure but to prevail, he must have hoped that there would be writers like Dubus read by his countrymen.
The opening story, “Deaths at Sea,” pairs the fellowship of two officer bunkmates—a black Chicago Yuppie and a Catholic Cajun integrationist—with the death by drowning of a cracker swabbie pushed into the slip as they both await the midnight liberty launch.
The difficulty of their friendly isolation is epitomized at an officers’ drinking party at which an “enlightened” Southern carrier pilot condescends with abysmal ignorance to the Buppie public information officer. The Cajun OOD tried to console his bunkie and then deals with the terrified black swabbie from Detroit, who wouldn’t suffer “Nigger” gladly from a drunken shipmate but is horrified by the freak drowning.
The details of these moral ambiguities (it is necessary but insufficient to be the compassionate Cajun) is so finely focused that it exhilarates you at the same time that it pains you with its Gordian complexities.
But it’s the range of Dubus that ultimately impresses: the Rashomon ambiguities of “Land Where My Fathers Died,” the dugout perspective of a minority ballplayer who freaks out at Fenway Park in “After the Game,” the terror of an 11-year-old held temporarily captive by a Viet crazie in a Boston bar in “Dressed Like Summer Leaves,” but especially the mother’s confused pains at her daughter Molly’s sexual coming of age, and (the best in the genre I’ve ever read) the survival of Rose abused by her husband.
Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard-at-Large, September 6, 1989

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