Preparing a feast for the literary soul

04/27/2006
By From the Boston Globe

By Joel Brown, Globe Correspondent

Andre Dubus III says he's luckier than most guys whose fathers have passed away.

''If I want to feel him, just pick up one of his 11 books, he'll be there," said Dubus, 46. ''Just now, doing this photo shoot with the book, I'm reading it while we're taking pictures, and it was nice to be with his sentences again, and his sensibility."

The elder Dubus, a larger-than-life character and a master of the short story who was sometimes referred to as America's Chekhov, died of a heart attack in his Haverhill home in 1999 at age 62. His son got the news while on a publicity tour for his own breakthrough novel, ''House of Sand and Fog." He's been missing him ever since.

Tomorrow and Saturday, the father will be in the son's thoughts even more than usual. The first Newburyport Literary Festival will honor Andre Dubus the elder with panel discussions and readings. Several members of his renowned Thursday night writer's group, which continues to meet, will talk about the experience. And the big Friday night gala is called ''Our Dinner with Andre."

''It feels like a blessing to be able to get up there and do this thing," said Dubus, a Newbury resident who will moderate the opening panel and join in all weekend.

Of course, Dubus (pronounced ''dub-yoose") would be a catch for any literary festival all by himself. ''House of Sand and Fog" was nominated for a National Book Award and chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, and then made into an acclaimed film.

His sister Suzanne, a screenwriter and director of Newburyport's Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, will also be part of the festival. They'll be joined by more than 60 writers and other literary types with area connections. Richard Russo (''Nobody's Fool"), Tess Gerritsen, Keith Ablow, Steve Almond, and Hallie Ephron will be there. So will Bill Littlefield, and poets Rhina P. Espaillat and X.J. Kennedy.

Vicki Hendrickson, director of the Newburyport Adult & Community Education Program, hatched the idea for the festival last year after attending the Oxford (Miss.) Conference for the Book. It was an inspiring event, she said, except for the grim statistics she heard about the decline in the reading of literary fiction.

She solicited $15,000 from both the Newburyport Five Cent Savings Bank and the Institution for Savings to underwrite her inaugural festival, then turned to the area's burgeoning community of agents, authors, writers, and designers. ''We had a team of amazing experts to pull this thing together," she said.

Newbury's Dick Ravin, one of the event's organizers and a member of the Thursday night writing group for six years, suggested the Dubus theme at their first meeting.

''I'd been wondering what we could do, what I could do, that would acknowledge the great man he was, the writer he was, and the great supporter of writers he was. I also thought it was a good thing for the festival," Ravin said.

The best current examples of the Thursday group's impact may be Peter Orner and Frieda Arkin, who'll both read at the festival.

Orner, now 37, had just returned from a stint teaching in Africa in the early 1990s when he joined the group, which met for Dunkin' Donuts Munchkins and writing talk at Dubus's home on East Broadway in Haverhill. ''I started to live for Thursday nights," he said. He got his first story published because Dubus sent it to a magazine editor he knew, without telling Orner.

Some of the pages Orner was working on evolved into a novel, ''The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo," which has just been published to positive reviews Sunday in The New York Times Book Review and The Boston Globe (a rave by Almond). He's in the middle of a book tour, with a reading at Newtonville Books tonight, ''but I would be there in Newburyport anyway."

At 88, Arkin has just greeted the paperback edition of her second novel, ''Hedwig and Berti," and is working on her third. Sitting in the living room of her Ipswich Victorian, the elfin writer reminisces fondly about her first writing teacher, Thornton Wilder. But of Dubus, she said, ''He was a wonderfully embracing man. He is the person that I wrote for, you see. Everybody had that same sensation about him."

Still, the writer with the most to feel this weekend will still be the younger Dubus. Literature and the lower Merrimack River Valley are woven into his family history.

There are fond memories, such as this from the 1960s, when his father brought the family to the famed writers' workshop at the University of Iowa: ''Every day this guy Kurt would come down from his house on our street to sit down with the four of us kids and watch 'Batman' in the afternoon, chain-smoking. Fill the room with his smoke. He'd say, 'I like False Face, who do you like?' 'I like the Riddler.' He was just kinda Uncle Kurt. But he was Kurt Vonnegut."

The elder Dubus started teaching at Haverhill's now-defunct Bradford College in 1966 and remained for 18 years, but he left the family in 1969. (By the end of his life, he had been married three times.)

Young Andre and his siblings and mother moved to a succession of hardscrabble neighborhoods in the area, including the notorious Lime Street in gritty pregentrification Newburyport. The beaten-down river towns that lived so vividly in his father's acclaimed stories weren't so appealing when he was the one getting beaten up.

Later, after college, when Andre III brought a girlfriend to see where he had grown up, he drove into the made-over Newburyport ''and I thought I took a wrong turn. I thought I was in Rockport."

When the younger Dubus started to write, he never took a class from his father or became part of the Thursday group. Although he now teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, he said he never felt the pull to formal writing education; for him it is a solitary struggle.

''And the other part of it is, I got so much crap when I first started to write -- the shadow, the father's shadow," he said. '' 'Your father, he must help you get published, he must make calls for you.' And it was so off base and wrong and hurtful, and I think almost as a subconscious reaction against it, I didn't go near him with the writing, never even talked to him about it."

They were close otherwise, he says. And things changed after the night of July 23, 1986, when his father stopped to help two stranded motorists on Interstate 93, was struck by a passing vehicle, and lost most of one leg and the use of both.

''He went through a lot of changes after his accident. He would say himself that he was more of a listener, less of a talker," Dubus said. ''He was more centered spiritually, whatever that means. He was just there more. He said his whole life that he gave the best part of himself to his writing. And I think in his last 12 and a half years of his life, he could say he put the best part of himself into his living."

That included the Thursday group. There were also a few words about reading or writing when father and son slipped away from one of those family dinners for a beverage and a smoke.

Andre and his brother Jeb built wheelchair ramps for his father's house, and later built his coffin. A father himself now, Andre pauses, remembering how difficult it was to watch the ex-Marine confined to a wheelchair. It's suggested that this won't be entirely a lighthearted weekend for him. He nods, then laughs it off.

His father was such a profane, funny, outsized character, he said, ''that energy will come through too!"

Aside from the gala tomorrow night, all Newburyport Literary Festival events are free to the public. Detailed schedules, directions, and information are available at www.newburyportliteraryfestival.org.