f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: <EM>God: Stories</em>--Andre Dubus Ritualistic Tangle With "A Father's Story"

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, December 29, 2003

God: Stories--Andre Dubus Ritualistic Tangle With "A Father's Story"

If you want to talk about contemporary writers tackling, with eloquence and honesty, the thorny issues surrounding the life of faith you simply need to read Andre Dubus. And the sooner the better, to be quite frank. You need to read his essays in books like Broken Vessels and Meditations on a Movable Chair and you need to read his short stories, particularly ones like "A Father's Story" which is in this collection.

This is about the fourth time I've read this particular story and I've also been lucky enough to find a recording of Dubus reading it himself. It's not terribly long--18 pages in this collection--and yet I've never been able to read it start to finish without stopping at least once or twice in the middle to linger with some of the moments he provides. This is Dubus refined to almost his purest essence as a writer--there's his steadfast Catholic faith, his hearty and never quite-PC manhood, his wonder at womanhood, his incandescent eloquence on the power of the sacraments, his closeness to nature, his nor'eastern gruffness, and his indescribable graciousness all rolled into the voice of Luke Ripley.

I'm not even going to pretend to be unbiased or critically-minded in this entry. I love this story and I'm sure I'm blind to whatever faults lie within. I'm also prone, having read much of Dubus' non-fiction, to confuse Ripley with Dubus himself. That's a dangerous thing, but if there's ever a story that seems to hem closely to its author's life, this is one and I think many of Ripley's beliefs are things that were important to the author as well.

The story begins: My name is Luke Ripley, and here is what I call my life.... And we soon enter Ripley's life, both as seen from the outside and what he calls his real life, the one nobody talks about anymore, except Father Paul LeBoeuf..... This is the life of the mind, the life of faith. We get ten pages of Ripley's life, his accounting for the kind of man he is. And then we get the problem. I'm not even going to talk about the problem because I want you to read it yourself, but sufficed to say it has to do with one of Ripley's children and a choice he makes as a father. It is, as the title clearly states, "A Father's Story."

Here I'm going to just type out a bit of Dubus' prose and talk briefly about rituals. Ripley is talking about going to Mass daily even though he is a not a naturally spiritual man.

I can receive, though: the Eucharist, and also, at Mass and at other times, moments and even minutes of contemplation. But I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and the wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.
And later, more on ritual...this time in the context of his failed marriage.

Twelve years later I believe ritual would have healed us more quickly than the repetitious talks we had, perhaps even kept us healed. Marriages have lost that, and I wish I had known then what I know now, and we had performed certain acts together every day, no matter how we felt, and perhaps then we could have subordinated feeling to action, for surely that is the essence of love.
This is a quick take on an incredibly complicated notion and, because I'm not Catholic and grew up with a healthy aversion to ritual, I vascillate on whether I think Dubus' is dead-on or off his rocker, but I like that he's challenging my views. Action is the essence of love (as dcTalk reminded us, "Love is a verb") and, though we may complain about the meaninglessness of ritual, too often we're too lazy to act out our love in new and thoughtful ways every day, even to those most important to us...be they God or our spouses. So ritual becomes our shorthanded way of daily sacrificing ourselves to them. It can't be our only expression of love, because rituals can certainly become dead, but I'm beginning to like his notion more and more.

This has little to do with writing fiction, I know. From that standpoint, I suppose I'll just point out how it is possible to tackle faith issues in fiction without resorting to putting them into the mouth of a pastor giving a sermon. These are simply thoughts of a man trying to understand his life, both the joys and mostly the sorrows. It's a fantastic story and I can't recommend Dubus any more highly. His Selected Stories is a desert-island book for me.