Rule #2 or 3 of blogging about books is "Don't wait to write about the books you read." Well, I read Andre Dubus's Voices from the Moon back in August, when I was off the grid and about to be consumed by Jeopardy!-cramming, so I never wrote about it, but it's too good to just put back on the shelf without saying something about it.
I came at the Andre Dubuses (Dubus and his son Andre Dubus III) backwards: the first of their books I read was Townie, Andre III's memoir of his life with--and mostly without--his writer father. In my previous life, this is just the time of year I'd be remembering Townie as the best book I've read this year and making my case to my colleagues that it should rank high in our Best of the Year list. I'm out of that loop now, which is a little sad--though less stressful!--but it means that instead of spending the year reading my professional diet of new books and new books only I was able to step out of the new-releases torrent and read a book from 1984 by Dubus pere that my friend Terry had recommended as a long-time favorite.
The father's book comes from the same world as the son's: the Massachusetts mill town, the men who work hard and fight in bars and are moved by art. But I wasn't sure I'd like it after the opening pages, which set up what looks like a claustrophobic kitchen-sink drama of the men in a family--two sons and a father--at each other's throats after the father reveals that he's in love with the older son's ex-wife. I thought the testosterone would make me want to leave the room. But the story didn't go where I expected: instead, like Townie, it moves from violence to peace, from anger to forgiveness and acceptance. And, not unrelatedly, it moves from men to women.
Voices of the Moon is short, just 126 well-spaced pages, more of a novella than a novel, and it's made up of nine chapters, each from the point of view of one of the characters. It's a standard rhythm for such stories to rotate the point of view with some sort of balance, but it's the imbalance in Dubus's voices that's breathtaking. The first six chapters stay within that tight domestic circle that the opening pages established--the sons Richie and Larry, the father Greg, the ex-wife and soon-to-be-stepmom Brenda--and you think you might never leave it. But then in chapters seven and eight the circle widens to include Carol, a sister to the two brothers, whom Greg visits to explain himself, and Joan, the mother of Greg's children and, long ago, his wife, whom Larry turns to in his angry confusion. And the story, holding its breath for so long, fills with air.
The women have lives of their own and, as it turns out, forgiveness to spare from their own troubles with love and the limitations of life. Carol doesn't howl at the scandal; she puts on Sinatra and dances with her father. Joan, a waitress who has constructed a simple and solitary life surrounded by art, listens to her son and knows before he does that he'll reconcile with his father. I like to talk about how allergic I am to emotionally on-the-nose scenes in fiction--I like oblique!--but, well, these scenes hit the nose so squarely and honestly that I just bowed down to their power. It's a beautiful, hard-earned story, and a lovely complement to Townie. I'll be coming back to the Dubuses.
P.S. I should add a caveat, though, that may have also affected my reception of the story: I'm not sure I can resist a book in which a poster of Jim Rice (from the description, I'm pretty sure it's this one) carries an iconic power for young Richie nearly equal to the rituals of the Catholic Church that otherwise dominate his moral imagination.