Dancing After Hours. – book reviews

Sarah J. Fodor

WHILE READING Andre Dubus’s ninth volume of short fiction I found myself recounting to friends anecdotes about the characters. I felt as if the events had happened to people I knew. Dubus, a Louisiana native who has lived in Massachusetts for much of his adult life, evokes the particularities of these locales in stories that often focus on working through the difficulties of relationships: on love and its failures, divorce, death, the fear of trusting again, and emotional and physical wounds.

One of the pleasures of this work is encountering the same characters in more than one story. LuAnn Arceneaux is the protagonist of three narratives, and her husband, Ted, appears in his own story about his life before their marriage. In “All the Time in the World,” 28-year old LuAnn meets Ted shortly after several failed relationships have led her to decide “she wanted love, but she did not want her search for it to begin in someone’s bed.”

In “The Timing of Sin,” LuAnn, 43, is happily married and has three children, and “nearly commit[s] adultery, was within minutes of consummating it, or within touches, kisses.” Surprised by how easily, thoughtlessly she has placed herself in “the occasion of sin,” she tells her girlfriend the story while they take their regular Saturday walk together. A Catholic, LuAnn has decided she will also confess to a priest because participating in this sacrament will give her strength, even though she has already repented and feels forgiven.

In the third Arceneaux story, “Out of the Snow,” Dubus, who is himself Catholic, extends this notion of the significance of sacraments beyond the traditional seven recognized by the church. LuAnn has come to consider her work as a wife and mother as one of an infinite number of possible sacraments, “the physical form that love assumed at that moment.” Thus, at the grocery store she is conscious of shopping “for the children’s bones and teeth, muscles and eyes and skin, and for Ted’s arteries.”

Two men with “hatred and anger and excitement” in their eyes follow her home from the store. I was dreading the unfolding of a stereotypical rape scene, but LuAnn kicks one of the men in the testicles and assaults them both with a steel skillet. They creep away, wounded, but she remains troubled by the realization that she has fought not for her husband or children, but “so blood would stay in my body.” If her own use of violence is that easy, how are we supposed to live? she wonders. “If evil can walk through the door, and there’s a place deep in our hearts that knows how to look at its face, and beat it till it’s broken and bleeding, till it crawls away. And we do this with rapture.” Her faith has not shielded her from the experience of evil. Instead, she experiences faith as a fact of her existence that informs her understanding of herself and others.

Other Dubus characters are not only victims but perpetrators of evil. In “The Intruder” a 13-year-old boy accidentally–or perhaps half-knowingly–shoots and kills his sister’s boyfriend, who has sneaked up to the house for a midnight rendezvous. The boy repudiates his violence in an epiphany that nevertheless re-enacts the impulse that made him shoot to “protect” his sister: “He saw himself standing on the hill and throwing his rifle into the creek; then the creek became an ocean, and he stood on a high cliff and for a moment he was a mighty angel, throwing all guns and cruelty and sex and tears into the sea.” At the same time that he imagines throwing away his weapon, he rejects and blames sexuality, avoiding responsibility by picturing himself as an avenging angel.

Dubus writes often about danger, sacrifice and wounding. In “Blessings” a woman thinks back to the previous year’s vacation during which her family survived a shipwreck and shark attack, and her husband risked his own life to try to save the captain. She remembers the day as both “the worst day most families have ever had” and the best. In the Arceneaux stories, Ted has been injured in the Vietnam war and walks with a cane. Dubus himself lost the use of both legs in the fall of 1987 when he stopped to help people who had had a car accident and was struck by another car as he pushed a woman to safety. In these first stories since the accident, he seems to be working through the implications of that experience.

The tales sometimes verge on sensationalism. Yet they reflect realities we often read about or see in the news–if we have had the good fortune not to experience them ourselves. I am reminded of Philip Roth’s observation that contemporary reality goes beyond the imaginative capacity of fiction:

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and them make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

After reading Dubus’s opening stories of an accidental homicide, a marriage destroyed by a husband’s unfaithfulness, and a woman who bitterly berates a lover about men’s fear of marriage, I was prepared to appreciate the quotidian, even traditional pleasure that a character like LuAnn Arceneaux takes in being good to herself, her husband and her children.

This volume bears the title of its final tale, the novella “Dancing After Hours,” a story whose pivotal character, Drew, like the author, gets around in a wheelchair. Emily, the 40-year-old bartender from whose perspective the story is told, has given up on the series of casual relationships that have constituted her experience of love: “Now there was AIDS, and she did not want to risk death for something that was already a risk, something her soul was too tired to grapple with again.”

As she skillfully prepares drinks and listens to the music of Bill Evans, Chet Baker and Roland Kirk, Emily thinks about the customer in the wheelchair, about the details of feeding and cleaning an adult, about being physically dependent on others. She is surprised to learn that Drew has recently gone skydiving, joyfully falling in an adrenaline rush. The risk has made him happy. The story develops a feeling of camaraderie between Drew, his friend and caregiver and the bar workers, concluding in the title scene in which Drew enjoys dancing with movements of his head and Emily finds herself able to take a chance on meeting the bar manager for lunch.

In such stories Dubus celebrates the possibility of hope in the face of the painful, everyday failures of relationships. His spare style and insistence on the pleasure of the ordinary make the stories themselves sacramental, feeding the spirit through the word.

COPYRIGHT 1996 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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