WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE
By Andre Dubus
Vintage. 213 pp. Paperback, $12
This little book, described by its publisher as a "movie tie-in," consists of three novellas featuring the same characters, two New England couples who coexist in young-married purgatory. They are: Jack, a college professor but not a writer, who lives with his wife, Terry, and two small children; Hank, a college professor who is also a dedicated novelist and who lives with his wife, Edith, and one small child. There's a priest who makes a cameo appearance in novella No. 2 and a string of girlfriends -- belonging to Hank. Since he's the writer, he's presumably cuter, and when he jogs with his sidekick Jack, he runs faster. The novellas start when Hank is 26 and end when he's 35.
In the first, "We Don't Live Here Anymore," we visit sidekick Jack, who bitterly resents that Terry doesn't keep a spotless house. He doesn't like it that she attempts intellectual conversation at the occasional dinner parties they give and goes utterly ballistic when he ventures down to the basement and finds that Terry has left a Dutch oven with old dead food in it on the stairs. Terry, on the other hand, has reason to feel bleak and unloved, since Jack is "making love with" Hank's wife, Edith. That phrase, instead of "having sex with" or "getting it on with," is used throughout these pages and seems particularly grating because very little love of any kind (except for the priest with the Eucharist) is given, taken, traded.
Truthfully, I don't get what the author is up to here. We find that Jack, that poor schlub, is really being used by Edith, who has found out that Hank, the aspiring novelist, has had a string of girlfriends because he doesn't think marriage should be monogamous, and there's a feeling here, as well, that a novelist should soak up as much experience as he can. (Why doesn't he take up sky diving, one wonders, and get his wife or one of his girlfriends to pack his chute?) Jack, meanwhile, tells his wife he doesn't love her but out of the goodness of his heart he'll stay with her, and she tearfully vows to vacuum and change the sheets more often.
Novella No. 2 shifts to Edith's point of view. Hank has broken her heart, too, and seems pretty cheery about it. Edith retaliates in the best way she can think of and embarks on affairs of her own. She doesn't read, poor thing. She only pretends to read Hank's work. Then, after a few years of this farce, the priest, who's been hovering in the fictional wings, discovers one night that he's been hugging a pillow in his sleep and deduces from this that he needs a woman. He nabs Edith, and they're very happy for a while, except that he yearns for Jesus, and Edith stands in the way.
Look, I know what I'm getting into here! I know Dubus got two Guggenheims and a MacArthur grant. I know he was horribly injured 13 years before his death while trying to rescue people in a car accident. I know he wrote very movingly about Jesus Christ. And I know two Dubus nieces (a colleague and a student) and admire them very much. Nevertheless!
Novella No. 3 shows Hank at age 35. His last several teenage girlfriends have dumped him. No one fully appreciates his genius. Edith remains his devoted friend, and Jack, that hopeless loser, still hangs around, remarking that women think only of dress sizes and the weather. Luckily, though, Hank meets a 19-year-old almost-virgin (just one affair, and she didn't like it!), and they decide to get married and be faithful to each other! Which is swell for Hank, I guess, but a little tough on the teenager.
I'm not going to get all "feminist" about this. No complaining about Jack's tirades or Hank's posturing. I won't demand equal pay for equal work, or more male housekeeping. I'm going to suggest that both genders can succumb to gender-blindness, an absolute lack of imagination about what the opposite sex is up to. Both Terry and Edith have children, whom they rarely talk to or think about. (There is no dialogue between these mothers and the kids. None.) One woman opines knowledgeably that women don't have real friends, that they can't be friends with each other.
The sad part -- not addressed in these novellas -- is that many women often hold the same brutish feelings about men. "They're chimps," a woman told me yesterday, and I'm afraid I answered, "You're only right." We were talking about a close relative whom we love dearly but didn't care to understand. Women are often more interested in books, and politics, and history, and music, and even cooking and gardening -- and especially children, than in penises and the bodies attached to them. Men may appear to us merely as the zombies who bore us to the point of coma in meetings, or shamelessly neglect the kids, or cheat on us with some woman named Brenda.
There are whole hours, days, when men are as invisible to us as we are to them. We disappear from each other: men and women. These novellas aren't about "adultery"; they're about blindness and loneliness, so terrible because they are so unnecessary.