On the book tour for his story collection “Dirty Love” last year, Andre Dubus III found himself challenged by a reader who stood up and asked him, “Do you ever think about how you’re going to make us feel?”
The implication was that she’d been hurt by his novels and stories, which almost never end well for their characters and tend to look unflinchingly at the inner lives of people in moments of failure and moral weakness.
Dubus, who is in town this week teaching at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Summer Words, said he told the reader no, he doesn’t concern himself with bringing people down.
“I found myself saying ‘No,’” he said. “I just want this thing that I’ve worked hard on to go inside the reader and do something. It’s frankly none of my business what it does. It just needs to be honest and true and resonant enough that it does go inside the reader and offers more than an escape.”
His fiction may be dark, but Dubus does dark better than most anybody. Since his breakout novel, the Oprah-ordained bestseller “House of Sand and Fog,” he’s been American literature’s leading chronicler of the dispossessed.
“Dirty Love” is made up of four long and loosely linked stories. They follow a man’s downward spiral as he investigates whether his wife is cheating on him, an overweight woman who gets her first boyfriend at age 29, a bartender cheating on his pregnant wife and, in the stunning title story, a teen girl, Devon, who has been cast out by her high school friends via a surreptitiously made and website-broadcasted sex tape.
The nearly novella-length story offers a perceptive, terrifying look at teen sexual politics in the Internet age. Devon is attached to her “iEverything,” with Beats headphones on her ears, like your average millennial. Seeking refuge from her Internet humiliation, she goes not to the kind, elderly uncle with whom she lives, not to her abusive, alcoholic father, nor to the one boy who treats her well, but to strangers on a fictional website modeled after the anonymous video forums on Chat Roulette. There, of all places, she finds hope.
To research the electronic lives of young people today, Dubus asked his 18-year-old daughter about texting, Facebook and smartphones (a self-proclaimed “digital-hating guy,” he doesn’t partake in any of them). He paid attention to the way his students at the University of Massachussets at Lowell wrote and spoke about pornography and “sex as a contact sport.” And briefly, he said, he signed on to Chat Roulette.
“I found it exceedingly creepy,” he said. “Most of the time you hit your little button and you see some kid whacking off. It’s just bizarre.”
With those technical pieces in place, he imagined Devon.
“I think the big challenge for me was not the technology stuff but trying to be a teenage girl in 2013,” he said.
Dubus writes in simple, assured prose. And while his characters might take a beating — figuratively or literally — he doesn’t kick them while they’re down. The coy irony and snickering self-awareness of so much contemporary fiction is nowhere to be found in his pages. In “Dirty Love,” the self-destructive cuckold, the overweight virgin, the ne’er-do-well bartender and the teenager on the sex tape are all allowed their dignity and written with empathy.
“I detest fiction of any kind that pokes fun at characters just to make the writer look like some wry, ironic, hip f----r,” Dubus said. “I work diligently to write only with compassion and a lack of judgment. That’s also my favorite kind of writing. I prefer to read work by writers who are trying to get into the private skin of these people and let them live their truth.”
And while his fiction is often sad and can be downright devastating, in conversation Dubus is a funny, f-bomb-dropping dude with a Masshole bonhomie about him. Asked whether his fiction brings him down, he laughs.
“I tend to be an upbeat, problem-solving, life-loving guy,” he said, “but I go into my little dreamworld every day, and I tend to be haunted by how wrong things can go. But the act of expressing it feels good. … It doesn’t get me down. It gets me down to not be writing.”
Along with teaching a workshop, Dubus is on public panels tonight and Wednesday at the Hotel Jerome.