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Dubus was the dean of Catholic arts culture


If there were such a thing as a Catholic arts culture in this country, then its dean would surely be Andre Dubus. Unfortunately, the increasing atomization and factionalism within the American church has largely eliminated such a culture. To make matters worse, Andre Dubus is no longer here to lead it, having succumbed at 62 to a heart attack in his Massachusetts home Feb. 24.

For American Catholic culture the loss is of tragic proportions. In both his writing and his personal life, Dubus provided a glimpse of what a deeply devoted Catholicism transcending ideological rifts might look like. His short fiction maintains a critical distance from contemporary American society -- in it, but not of it. Dubus was unwilling to be seduced by the material world and refused its claims that we should fear the turbulent, tragic forces within and around us.

Dubus’ stories show how these forces carve out a space where one can feel the materiality of grace. An ebullient man steeped in traditional cultures, his works consistently and radically assert that grace, redemption and transcendence are far more real than the empty shell of a world built on top of creation.

Dubus’ style committed to the study of characters. He explores their perceptions, feelings and sensations. His characters struggle, stumble or strive to push through, to arrive at revelation, balance, peace. The stories do not unfold in the tempo of action and accomplishment, but the pulse of a patient observer waiting for a glimpse of grace manifested. It is a measure of his craftsmanship that a two-page character study in Dancing After Hours creates more heart-stopping momentum than any car chase ever could -- the result of his fusing together the relentless inevitability of narrative and of life.

Dubus’ characters have inner courage and sometimes downright discipline. Many commentators ascribe this to the author’s experience as a Marine, and to his upbringing in the South. Certainly those factors come into play, but Dubus was not raised just anywhere in the South. He grew up in Catholic Louisiana, where, as his sister Kathryn observed, “Catholicism was the air that we breathed.”

The depth of Dubus’ writing can be fathomed in that air -- where duty and discipline had a larger, transcendent purpose. His writing has an almost childlike bewilderment at secular society’s incomprehensibility (and downright loathing) of picking up the cross daily, of the freedom that can be achieved by dying unto oneself, of the joy that is to be found in redemption.

Dubus found an aesthetic in the difficulty of facing the cross, uncovering the promise hidden there. It was part of what lead him to his practice of daily Eucharist. Dubus saw beyond the manner in which traditional Catholic practices -- daily Communion, the rosary, devotions -- were being co-opted to turn spirituality inward at the expense of a more activist church. He was always on the side of the underdog, not so much for political reasons but because of his faith that it was one of the core principles of Christianity.

What he saw in traditional rites and ritual was something Thomas Merton (and others who followed) point to: the potential for developing a duty and discipline necessary to embrace the way of the cross.

Dubus found his own cross when, having stopped to give assistance at the scene of an accident, he was struck by a car and left permanently disabled. A man who had gone through life taking the bull by the horns suddenly found himself using a wheelchair, unable to venture out without having to worry if he would be able to relieve himself. The experience of “being crippled,” as he described it, transformed Dubus. He had always been a charming, difficult man: Eloquent and genuine, his ebullience could turn boisterous and his clarity of purpose could become confrontational.

Like any encounter with the Way of the Cross, however, Dubus would come face to face with the profoundly individual attachments that limit a person’s ability to accept how God can expand their potential to be loving children of creation. For Dubus that meant confronting the issues of control that had become such an integral part of his identity. In that struggle he painfully acquired the humility he so admired in those he greatly respected: Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi, the martyrs of El Salvador.

To think of Dubus’ struggle and anguish as only a story that leads to his redemption is to somehow dishonor the suffering that those of us who are “whole bodies” can never know. The depth of that redemption has the power to save us, it spills over onto the pages of both Dancing After Hours and Meditations from a Movable Chair, composed with an even deeper human vision than he possessed before. A vision that understood that “to view human suffering as an abstraction, as a statement about how plucky we all are, is to blow air through brass while the boys and girls march in parade off to war.”

Vincent F. Rocchio is a media scholar and independent filmmaker. His forthcoming book, Cinema of Anxiety: A Psychoanalysis of Italian Neorealism, is published by the University of Texas Press.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999