When a Master of the Short Story Went Long
Andre Dubus wrote only one novel. Its reissue is an occasion for celebrating his gift for capturing “moments,” and his blending of mundanity and mystery.
by Andre Dubus
Nonpareil, 272 pp., $18.95
IN 1957, EIGHT YEARS AFTER HE WON the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner joined the University of Virginia as a writer-in-residence. He lectured to classes and took questions. “I don’t know any literary people,” he told one group of students. “The people I know are other farmers and horse people and hunters, and we talk about horses and dogs and guns and what to do about this hay crop or this cotton crop, not about literature.”
Faulkner lied often—a good trait for a novelist—but I appreciate his sentiment. It reminds me of the writer Andre Dubus. While his son, Andre Dubus III, is better known today—and he deserves his good reputation: his novel House of Sand and Fog and the film adaptation of it are both excellent—the elder Dubus, who died in 1999, was a gifted writer of short fiction. He is also the writer that I most often recommend to those who might identify with Faulkner’s account of his neighbors: people who do not live in the literary world, but who are moved by raw, authentic stories.
Born in 1936 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Dubus studied English at McNeese State College. He followed his father into the Marine Corps in 1958. Dubus wrote fiction while in the Marines—hammering away from 4:30 to 7:30 each morning, before his service hours began. He managed a novel manuscript, One Face in the Morning, which he revised from start to finish fourteen times. It remains unpublished.
He resigned as a captain in 1963. The next year, he entered the MFA program at the University of Iowa, where he apparently watched episodes of Batman in the afternoon with Kurt Vonnegut. In 1966, Dubus did that which causes envy among one’s graduate school peers: He sold a novel. Dial Press bought The Lieutenant, and he partied until 4 a.m. the following day. (The local newspaper’s headline: “Andre Dubus Knows What Happiness Is, He Sold Book.”) That afternoon, likely still hazy from celebrations, his rhetoric class “surprised him with a cake and crepe paper decorations.”
The Lieutenant was published in 1967, and then re-released by Green Street Press in 1986. But the novel has faded from view, living mostly as an obscure bit of trivia: It was the only novel that Andre Dubus ever published.
Godine, Dubus’s publisher since 1975, re-released the novel this week under its Nonpareil imprint. The book, hopefully, will send some new readers to Dubus’s work. He deserves it.
THE LIEUTENANT IS “BASED ON A PERSONAL experience he had while in the service,” as Dubus told a reporter upon the novel’s acceptance. In 1961, he served with the Marine Detachment aboard USS Ranger. As he explained in an essay, Dubus and the detachment “guarded the planes’ nuclear weapons stored below decks, ran the brig, and manned one of the antiaircraft gun mounts” on the aircraft carrier in the western Pacific. Then a first lieutenant, Dubus was told by a lieutenant commander that Soviet submarines were tracking them, and if the ship’s whistle blew, “we’ll get a nuclear fish up our ass in the first thirty minutes.” Before that, they would have to send their aircraft to Moscow to retaliate. Dubus, unknowing, asked where the pilots would land afterward. “They won’t,” the lieutenant commander said. “They know that.”
Amid these tensions, a decorated Navy pilot who served as the commander of the air group on the Ranger was being investigated for his sex life. At the end of it he was offered two choices: face a general court-martial, or resign from the Navy. The pilot chose a third option: he shot himself with his .38 revolver.
The Lieutenant is not exactly the story of this Navy pilot, but Dubus was clearly haunted by the man’s death. The novel’s focus is Dan Tierney, executive officer of the Marine detachment on USS Vanguard. A lean former college baseball player with “dark bright eyes, sometimes appearing black,” Tierney had been assured by senior officers “again and again, that this tour would advance his career.” The novel’s third-person narrator seems to have internalized that line, noting one of the “only pleasures” that Tierney “drew from sea duty was the honor, the prestige, of being chosen to represent the Marine Corps aboard the largest ship in the Pacific.”
Captain Raymond Schneider, the detachment’s commanding officer, was in a Naval hospital in Yokosuka with an ear infection. Tierney, by default, took command of the detachment for two weeks: “For the first time in his career, all the responsibility would be his.” He feels inadequate from the start. While Tierney was a college sophomore, breaking up with his girlfriend, Schneider was busy being a hero in the Chosin Reservoir.
Eager to impress, Tierney throws himself into his temporary role—but immediately learns that he must deal with the punishment of Private First Class Theodore (Ted) Freeman. An orderly for the Vanguard’s captain, Freeman “was one of those who had to shave only every other day and he could use an electric razor for that.” Tierney thought Freeman could evolve from a “parade field Marine” to “a competent seagoing NCO” if he could “gain some of those tougher qualities he lacked.”
Unfortunately, Freeman had been disrespectful to a corporal, and had to be reprimanded. Following a standard speech, Tierney sends him to the brig for three days to only eat bread and water. It is a harsh punishment; he almost immediately doubts his decision. His daily brig check arises from “that possessive curiosity of a hunter picking up a fallen bird; he also wanted to reassert himself.” Tierney is a good guy, full of guilt, eager to follow the advice he heard back in Basic School in Quantico: “The career of a Marine officer is living the lie and making the lie come true.” (The line came from an actual speech Dubus heard by Marine Lieutenant General Merrill Twining.)
Tierney ponders the lie. That includes thinking of his girlfriend, Khristy. Every night, he writes her four- or five-page letters. They’d only slept together once, and while still in bed, he asked her to marry him. Her answer “chilled him: Let’s don’t even talk about it till you get back from sea duty. I want time to check out my psyche.” He’s taken aback by her “rational voice.” In fact, she’s war weary herself. Her father was a Marine colonel at Camp Pendleton; she’s lived with the reality of military life. She evidently doesn’t want to live with it again: During their last night together before he left, Khristy told him to quit the Corps. “You’re on fire with it” now, she says, but warns him: “you’ll be yelling gung-ho on beaches and someday if you’re still around you’ll retire and they’ll give you a regimental parade and you’ll cry when they march past playing the Hymn—unless you’ve changed a lot.” She looks away from him, and then says: “And for what.”
In contrast to Khristy, Tierney is sentimental and earnest. While checking mail for the men in the brig, he reads a letter from Freeman’s girlfriend and discovers she is pregnant. This further increases his guilt, and he decides to try to get Freeman off the Vanguard and back home. He lets the imprisoned private out of the brig early, which doesn’t sit well with a trio of other Marines: Hahn, Jensen, and McKittrick. They harass Freeman at night, until—in a murky scene—they all seem to turn on McKittrick, who is pinned on the floor. Hahn unbuckles McKittrick’s belt, and soon “Freeman heard what he thought was a groan and McKittrick’s legs stopped struggling though their muscles were still tight, and Freeman looked up from the legs and saw what Hahn was doing and for an instant he could not move, as if an intense nausea had suddenly rushed up from his knees to his throat.”
Freeman flees the scene, but it is too late; his fate has been intertwined with theirs. Tierney is furious. He feels that he has put himself and his reputation on the line for Freeman, and he senses “the lie,” the lie Marines are duty bound to live by, fraying. As the investigation intensifies, Tierney still attempts to protect Freeman—until he is punished himself. The novel’s final act seals Freeman’s fate and makes Tierney into an organization man.
THE LIEUTENANT IS A GOOD NOVEL, worth reading. Yet what made Dubus great was his mixture of narrative compression and emotional authenticity—qualities that are more easily forged in the furnace of short fiction. Readers should hunt for those Dubus stories. (His collection The Winter Father is a great place to start.) Although Dubus sometimes wrote of active-duty military and of war in his shorter fictions, they are more often about civilians.
“What interests me,” Dubus said, is “how people get by, how they get through a day. That’s why a lot of my men run, jog. I’m interested in people’s drinking habits, in the classes women take at night, what people do when they start to break up. . . . I have a middle-class life and these are the little tragedies I’ve seen.” He described his writing as a “vocation,” an apt word, considering that he never wavered from his cradle Catholicism.
His deceptively simple stories are meticulously crafted, lyrical, and morally ambiguous. He wrote about bad people and selfish people; people torn between love and lust and betrayal. Most importantly, though, he wrote about working- and middle-class people—women and men who work shitty jobs, who complain and fight, who believe in love and (the promise and possibility of) family. People who deserve to be read about, particularly in stories written with care and empathy. To be certain, Dubus had an attuned moral sense—he took stances—but he played it fair with his characters. Godine published many of these stories over the years, and several years ago, re-collected them and his novellas. Find the resonant longing in “Leslie in California.” The honest morality of “Bless Me, Father.” The riveting terror of “The Pretty Girl.” The heartbreaking revelations of “A Father’s Story.” The gorgeously sketched melancholy of “Anna.” These stories are tight and tense. They feel real.
In a uniquely self-aware 1970 interview, Dubus said, “One of the limitations of my particular talent is that I work on incidents.” He admitted that if he were to write The Lieutenant then, “it would be about half as long.” Novelists, he would later say, “envision a world. I don’t. I envision a moment, or an incident.”
Perhaps the true worth of The Lieutenant is the view it gives into Dubus’s way of bringing together the messy realities of life with its abiding mysteries. In his essay “Two Ghosts,” Dubus claims that he saw a ghost in September 1961 on USS Ranger. At 4 in the morning, Dubus was on his way to the bathroom when he saw a drunk-looking Naval officer walking toward him. “I stood waiting,” Dubus wrote, “and when he reached me he stopped, and we faced each other in the dark, and the dim red light. I looked at his face. When I opened my mouth to speak, he vanished.” Dubus was not afraid, not even when the apparition appeared next to his bunk after he got back in bed. He pitied the ghost, who eerily sounds like PFC Freeman from The Lieutenant: “he made me want to help him find the way to his room. He looked only young and friendly and absolutely helpless.”
At the end of the essay, Dubus notes how the ghost never returned. Or, maybe, he “came again while I slept, and chose not to disturb me. Perhaps by then he knew I could not help him.” The incident never left Dubus, so he did the only thing he could: He wrote about it.