I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
August 1, 2019: Andre Dubus III
Don’t read any reviews of Andre Dubus III’s new novel, Gone So Long. Not because they’re bad but because all the ones I found include spoilers. And it’s not that they would ruin the big picture, but they will ruin the lovely, slow way we begin, the way we meet Susan and Daniel as who they are now and only gradually learn about their past. Meeting them this way first adds so much depth to the hard questions the novel asks.
Andre is a master at building a story, brick by brick, moment by moment. I always have such trouble with where and how to begin. It feels as if there is so much that needs to be said all at once. But reading these opening pages calms the writer in me at the same time that the reader in me has turned 7 pages without realizing it. In 7 pages I was hooked on two different characters.
One afternoon it was so hot she could smell the rot in the dead branches on the banks. She could smell the wet sand and clay and the tiny crayfish. She could smell gator shit and Spanish moss and her own sweat. But what she never smelled were the brown and gold scales of the cottonmouth snake coiled a foot from her bare feet and legs. When she looked down and saw it, she’d just taken a deep drag of her cigarette and now she nearly coughed but did not move…How could she have been so stupid? How could she have allowed herself to be so exposed? …She slowly exhaled smoke through her nose, and maybe she made a noise of some kind, for the snake lifted its head and opened its white mouth and Susan was sprinting back through the trees and this is the moment that came to her as she watched the shadowed entryway of her father’s parole officer’s office.
Today he notices his hands. They’re his old man’s–thick fingers, chipped and yellowed nails, though his father’s always had carnival paint in his cuticles that never came out. Daniel reaches for the nail file he uses to weave the cane under and over itself. A warm wind kicks up from the east and brings with it beach sounds, or maybe it’s just Daniel’s memory of them–the creaking gears of the Ferris wheel and the popping water balloons and the cries of the gulls.
Andre Dubus III is a force of nature. He is always all in. His books are beautifully written and real. And he can quote a gazillion writers on whatever craft issue needs addressing or whatever seemingly unreachable goals he wants you to strive for. But it was what he shared about his own rejections that have meant the most to me and that I have copied and pasted and sent to friends and even to my agent way back when.
He says his first book, the fiction collection The Cage Keeper and Other Stories, was submitted to 38 publishers over five years before it found a home. His second, the novel Bluesman, was turned down by more than 30. His third, House of Sand and Fog, collected 24 rejections over two years.
I first met Andre in the fall of 2014 when I picked him up from SFO to drive him to Tomales Bay for a Writing by Writers workshop. He railed for an hour and a half against smart phones, proudly displaying his flip phone. He also put me on that phone with his wife, although at this moment, I can’t remember why. I took the above photo in Chamonix, France, last year. Andre was reading to us from Gone So Long.
I first read his work over twenty years ago. After somehow missing his debut collection, The Cage-Keeper and Other Stories, I started with Bluesman, his first novel structured in 40 short chapters, and after that came House of Sand and Fog (an Oprah pick and movie), then The Garden of Last Days, Townie (his memoir–get the audible and listen to him read it), Dirty Love (4 linked novellas), and now Gone So Long.
More than what happens, I remember his characters. In Bluesman, it’s Jim playing guitar and his son Leo watching his face, how soft it gets. From Dirty Love, it’s un-cool Marla and cool Devon. Read these lines from “Marla.”
Sometimes after dressing for work, Marla would stand at the kitchen sink with the last of her coffee and feel as if her small apartment and everything in it were props for a movie she wasn’t even in, as if she were working for all this for somebody else. She was twenty-nine years old and had been a teller at Providential Bank for eight years.
Soon the condoms were in a bag in Marla’s hand, and as she stepped out onto the sunlit sidewalk she felt part of the bigger picture somehow, more of a citizen of the world she lived in.
The ending is just perfect. But my favorite line from Dirty Love comes from the title novella. We’re in Devon’s point of view.
With no music in her head, there’s too much in her head…
Come back on AUGUST 1st to read how ANDRE DUBUS III spends his days.