THE LONELY VOICE #9: We Don’t Have to Live Great Lives

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I spent most of today re-reading Andre Dubus’s “Voices From the Moon”.[1] It is one of those stories. When you finish it you concentrate a little harder on your own breathing because you feel a little more alive. Because you’re reminded that you’ve got only a finite number of breaths left. Am I alone here? Or do you also spend most of every day in willful denial? I re-read certain stories so I don’t forget that one day my battered heart will be stop doing whatever it does in there.

This particular story I didn’t think I needed to re-read. I thought already knew it. Read “Voices From the Moon” once and you carry it with you for good. From the opening lines It’s divorce that did it the characters become your people. Dubus adds family to the fucked-up family you already have.

For years, I’ve been walking around remembering this as a wrenching, unbearably sad story. This afternoon, I put the book down and stared out the window for an hour. I’ve had it all wrong. “Voices From the Moon” is joyous. Achingly hard-won but nonetheless, genuinely – even fervently – joyous.
On the surface at least the scenario is straight out of Maury Povich.[2] A divorced father named Greg is not only sleeping with his son Larry’s ex-wife Brenda, but plans to marry her.

The story opens with Greg’s much younger son, twelve-year old Richie, over-hearing his father confessing all this to Larry.

“It just happened. It always just happens.”

“Beautiful. What happened to will?”

“Don’t talk to me about will. Did you will your marriage to end? Did your mother and me? Will is for those bullshit guys to write books about. Out here it’s – ”

“ – Survival of the quickest, right. Woops, sorry, so, out of the way, boy, I’m grabbing your ex-wife.”

Yet the story is the opposite of sensational.  Sensational would be easy. Screaming and shouting would be easy.  Demonizing the father and making an innocent victim of the son would be easy.

Dubus never lets his people off easy.

Instead, “Voices From the Moon” is a passionate meditation on the nature of faith and love.  Early on, in one of the most telling – and comic – lines, Richie thinks, “It will be hard to be a Catholic in this house.” I’ll say.  Yet the sentiment reminds me of one of Kafka’s diary entries where he writes something along the lines of, Jew? I have enough trouble being a human being. Now you want me to be a Jew? It’s tough enough to be a human being or a Catholic or a Jew at any time but when your father does something that makes your life even harder –as fathers tend to do – in this case something as absurd and harmful as falling for your brother’s ex-wife, what’s a kid to do?

It will be hard to be a Catholic in this house. Funny – and also dead serious. Rather than condescend to (or dumb down) this twelve year-old as so many lesser writers would, Dubus endows him with empathy and wisdom. Richie is a deeply devout person who hopes to become a priest.  Needless to say, his father’s actions complicate his life. But rather than blame him, Richie assumes the burden of his father’s choice. To top it off, and it’s worth mentioning this entire story happens over the course of a single night and day, Richie himself is rapidly falling in love with a girl in the neighborhood, Melissa Donnelly. Melissa Donnelly smokes and wears cut-offs. So this is a twelve year-old kid with a lot on his mind. This is Richie in church on the morning after his father and brother have had their talk:

Beneath the host, Father Oberti’s face was upturned and transformed. It was a look Richie noticed only on young priests, and only when they consecrated the bread and wine. In movies he has seen faces like it, men or women gazing at a lover, their lips and eyes seeming near both tears and a murmur of love, but they only resembled what he saw in Father Oberti’s face, and were not at all the same.

The third sentence above is uniquely Dubusian. It starts one place (Father Oberti’s face) and suggests a comparison (the face resembles the faces of people in love in the movies) before rejecting the comparison in favor of the sanctity of the thing itself. For Richie, lovers in the movies were only like Father Oberti’s face as he holds up the host. They were not at all the same. The false comparison though, somehow, strengthens our sense of the real thing. Richie recognizes that authentic faith is something different, tangible while at the same time unexplainable in words – not unlike the love he feels for his father and his older brother.

Later, Richie wonders if sadness itself will be his cross to bear.

Because we will always do damage to our own familes. And all the faith and love in the world will never make us stop. As Brenda puts it to herself, she’d always believed “in trying one’s best to be a decent human being whose life did not spread harm.” And now look at her, she’s not only fucking Larry’s father, she’s going to marry him.

What happens when, as is so often the case, it’s love itself – who we choose to love – that causes all the harm?  But the sorrowful mystery raised by this story is not about how we might avoid spreading the harm. It is about how we behave in the aftermath of the harm.  Do we compound it? Or is there another way?

Here I turn to my own favorite character, Joan, Greg’s ex-wife and Richie, Larry, and Carol’s mother. Two years before the story starts, Joan committed what many might consider an even more unforgiveable sin against conventional morality.  She’s a mother who – exhausted of her marriage – walked out on her ten year-old son.  Now she lives alone in an apartment in a neighboring town. She sees Richie regularly but even so the hurt never relents.

She would rather endure carrying Richie in her womb, and the bursting pain of bearing him, than what she had suffered the day she told him and, that same day, left him, and what she had to keep enduring, it seemed, for the rest of her life.

When Larry confronts her with the story of Greg and Brenda, Joan’s reaction is at once harsh, beautiful, and surprising.

“We don’t have to live great lives,” Joan says. “We just have to understand and survive the ones we’ve got.”

Amen, Joan.

***

Andre Dubus was my teacher. I was also lucky enough to call him a friend.  For much of the time I knew him, the last seven years of his life, he was in a lot of physical and emotional pain. When I think of Andre now, and I think of him often, I think of the way he used to silently search my face for the sources of my pain. Sometimes he’d say, “Have you called your father?” Then he’d guffaw. Then he’d stop. “Seriously, have you? In weeks? Have you called your father?”

Today I re-read one of his greatest stories and, for a brief time, will be better for it. The best any writer can hope for.  Seamus Heaney once wrote that the hardest of all things to practice is daily decency. “Voices From the Moon” echoes this and then some.

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1. The story was originally published as a short novel. It is currently in print as section of Andre Dubus’ Selected Stories (Vintage, 1995). I look at it as akin to Chekhov’s late stories, many of which were over a hundred pages long. Chekhov’s “My Life” was among Dubus’s favorites.

2. I’m told my TV reference here is hopelessly out of date. I’m surprised. Maury Povich isn’t on anymore? Feel free to substitute Jersey Shore here.

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A version of this column will appear as the Afterward to the forthcoming Italian edition of Voices From the Moon, translated by Nicola Manuppelli for Edizioni Mattioli.

Photo of Andre Dubus by Marion Ettlinger.


Peter Orner’s most recent book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and was named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal. 2014 will mark the 5th year of the Lonely Voice column on the Rumpus. More from this author →