The Last Worthless Evening: Four Novellas and Two Short Stories, by Andre Dubus
Andre Dubus has been billed for years as the U.S.’s premier short story writer, and I certainly see evidence of such talent in this collection. But the trap our preeminent writers sometimes seem to fall into as their reputation grows is to allow their talent to drift into stories in which shortcomings settle, take seed, and grow. And I see evidence of that in this collection.
The stories here are on the surface a mixed bag: racism in the ‘50s U.S. Navy. A fatally sick Hispanic baseball player. Irish-American war veterans. Greek families. Teen coming of age (sexually). Domestic violence.
What’s the common denominator here? A gritty view of American life in its lower social strata. There’s no stylizing here – except possibly in Dubus’ varied structure for these pieces. His dialogue often sizzles, and his characterizations are paramount, some of the best you’ll find in contemporary writing. He gives us stories through an unflinching, pull-no-punches voice. Still, I’m troubled, not by the impact these stories leave, but with something else.
There’s little in the way of arc to these pieces. Dubus may have wished to imply things his stories didn’t contain, but these six pieces each left me wanting. They’re really more detailed character sketches than stories; each drawing lives, or multiple lives, in excruciating detail, these taking the reader nowhere. This approach works magnificently in his two short stories, which condense and distill characters to a moment. But in the longer pieces, this preoccupation fails to lead the reader to answer broader question about American life. As a result, they’re extended snapshots, telling us much, but not enough.
Too, I grew to feel bludgeoned by his first person approach to these stories, so many depicting drugs, drinking, gratuitous sex, concern with looks and weight. It’s as if Dubus himself is thinly veiled by his narrators, who are most vividly women – whatever that says about Dubus. And all too often his narrative goes on and on in these longer pieces, giving the reader minutiae, not panorama.
There’s certainly no doubt about Dubus’ talent. But some writers are born to the short story, others to the novel, while still others manage both. But those who juggle long and short fiction successfully play each by different sets of rules, something I don’t think Dubus could bring himself to realize.
My rating 15 of 20 stars