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He Killed Her Mother. Now He Wants to Make Amends.

Category: Art & Culture,Books

GONE SO LONG
By Andre Dubus III
444 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.

In Andre Dubus III’s best-selling memoir, “Townie,” he describes his difficult childhood with a certain amount of complicated nostalgia. The first few years of his life were happy and bohemian. His parents were social and literary, his mother was beautiful, an excellent cook. It was only after his father ran off with one of his students, prompting a slow-motion divorce, that Dubus knew real hardship. His family (he has three siblings) began moving from one cheap rental to another in failing provincial towns where casual violence (between neighbors and among classmates) became a part of his everyday life. “When I thought of the word man,” he writes, “I could only think of those who could defend themselves and those they loved.”

His new book, “Gone So Long,” is a fictional exploration of this dangerous idea. Daniel Ahearn grows up in a beach town north of Boston. An ugly boy, hooknosed, with narrow-set eyes, he is picked on by other kids (as Dubus was) and learns to deal with this problem by succumbing to sudden and violent overreactions. His only recognizable talent is his voice: He has big “pipes.” The second-best thing that ever happens to him is that he gets a job as the D.J. for a carnival ride. The best thing follows from that: He meets a beautiful young woman named Linda, they have a child together, they get married. But when he catches other guys looking at her and beats one of them up, she doesn’t take his side. Later, when she threatens to leave him, he kills her with a kitchen knife in a fit of rage while their 3-year-old daughter looks on.

All of this happens more or less in the back story. The novel’s action takes place 40 years later, after Daniel has done his time and is dying of prostate cancer. He wants to see his daughter, Susan, before he goes. The narrative shifts between his point of view and those of Susan (an adjunct professor at a college in Florida, working on a novel) and Lois, the grandmother who raised her and shielded her from any contact with her father.

The problem of Daniel’s violent male temper is mirrored by the problem of Susan’s beauty. Like her mother, she has spent her life coping with, defending herself from and sometimes relying on her ability to attract male attention, an “account” she can draw on whenever she wants, but at the expense of normal, loving relationships.

There are other parallels between father and daughter. Both are trying to “write” the central event of their lives in a way that doesn’t belittle or sensationalize it. In a letter to his daughter, Daniel is taking on a seemingly impossible task: trying to explain himself, trying to persuade her to see him. For her part, Susan is trying to work through her writer’s block on a novel by creating a kind of free-association memoir of her relationships with men.

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For Susan, like Dubus, the misery of her life is also a source of authenticity. She worries that she “uses” men, then runs away from them. This includes her husband, Bobby, a musicologist who specializes in free-form jazz (life is too messy to try to give it a shape) and the only man who has ever been good to her. Daniel, meanwhile, has responded to the problems accompanying male sexuality by cutting himself off from all meaningful contact with women. Susan fears that any reunion will force her to confront “the soft black guts of her shame itself.” She’s his daughter, after all.

These are hard things to write about and Dubus asks difficult questions. What do you do with a man who has done what Daniel Ahearn has done? How do you sympathize with him? Dubus does a good job of making Daniel’s self-justifications seem simultaneously plausible and crazy. (He takes full responsibility for the murder, but also blames it on third-person versions of himself that he calls Danny or Captain Suspicion or The Reactor.)

Dubus writes well about class — not so much the clash between different ends of the social ladder as the internal conflict that determines whether someone will rise or fall. His characters usually have a foot on two rungs. They’re going up or down. What drives Dubus’s storytelling is the urge to find out which way they’ll turn.

“Townie” is a beautiful piece of work, both shocking and understated. The facts on the ground, the details of Dubus’s childhood, are so rich that he hardly needs to comment on them. But “Gone So Long” doesn’t quite allow for such reticence. It’s bookended by two climactic, almost impossible-to-imagine events (the murder and the meeting), but the links that connect them are much more ordinary: a road trip, arguments between Susan and her grandmother. The big stuff and the small stuff have to stand somehow in relation to each other; Dubus must navigate between melodrama and sentimentality. Part of his point, though, is that underneath the sentimentality, fueling it, are darker feelings and desires.

“‘That’s why we make love, baby, that’s why you read all those stories and try to get your students to read them too, that oneness. It doesn’t matter to me whether you think you love me or not. I know you love what we have here. And I know you feel that, too. Don’t you?’ His finger grazed her jaw.”

This speech comes not from Susan’s father but from her husband, one of the good guys.


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