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What makes a man? Andre Dubus III looks for answers in ’Ghost Dogs’

The essay collection from the novelist and memoirist, who will appear at Writers in Paradise in St. Petersburg, is a thoughtful examination of manhood.
 
Andre Dubus III
Andre Dubus III [ JOHN HAUSCHILDT | John Hauschildt ]
Published Jan. 8|Updated Jan. 12

The gun, the fist, the tender heart — which is the greatest peril?

Bestselling novelist and memoirist Andre Dubus III tackles that question in his moving essay collection, “Ghost Dogs: On Killers and Kin.” The book will be published March 5, but Dubus might well be talking about it next week in St. Petersburg. He’s a longtime faculty member at Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise conference, and he’ll be appearing Jan. 15 in the conference’s free reading series. (See schedule below.)

Dubus wrote about his harrowing childhood in his 2012 memoir, “Townie.” His father, the acclaimed short story writer and writing teacher Andre Dubus, left his young family when the son was 10 years old. His mother struggled with four kids, little support and, often, multiple jobs. In the memoir, Dubus wrote of the poverty and street violence that shaped his childhood.

In “Ghost Dogs,” he continues his examination of his family, but expands it to write about the much happier family he formed with his wife, Fontaine, and three kids. He’s in his 60s now, his kids grown, and in this book he reflects on the very different notions of manhood he has struggled to reconcile.

One big element of those models of manhood is fatherhood. While he was growing up, his own father was distant both physically and emotionally, and he made his living doing something his young son found mysterious, especially contrasted with his maternal grandfather, called Pappy. Dubus and his siblings spent summers with their grandparents in rural Louisiana, where Pappy put his soft-handed grandsons to work running a tiller and chainsawing trees. In Pappy’s world, a man was defined by the work of his hands.

In addition to those two models — the creative artist and the practical workman — the young Dubus grappled with another idea of masculinity, the street fighter. Bullied as a kid, he lifted weights and boxed so he could defend himself. But he also learned to love the fights he got into.

Those three aspects of male identity follow him into adulthood. He writes of making a living as a bartender and carpenter, and in “The Golden Zone,” an essay that reads like a thriller, he recounts one sketchier stretch when he worked for a bounty hunter, chasing an assassin in Mexico. At first he sees it as an opportunity to gather material for his writing, but what happens leads him to vow “I would not be coming back here, not like this, a tourist of other people’s misery, a consumer of it.”

Dubus and his father reconciled as the son began following in the father’s footsteps. “Carver and Dubus, New York City, 1988″ is a lovely reminiscence of an awards ceremony where the elder Dubus was honored and met one of his own heroes, writer Raymond Carver.

Money (and its relationship to masculinity) is another theme that runs through the essays. In “The Land of No,” Dubus writes about a relationship in his 20s with a woman who is beautiful, kind and supportive. But it crumbles because she’s also from a wealthy family, and his resentment, “the pride of the sufferer,” comes between them.

Years later, as he recounts in “High Life,” his third book, “House of Sand and Fog,” becomes a bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award. When he sells the movie rights (the film was Oscar-nominated), he gets an amount of money so large it seems unreal. He takes his wife, kids, mother and aunt to New York for an extravagant vacation, staying at the Plaza and taking limos to Michelin-starred restaurants. He spends more in a weekend than he’s ever made in a year. “For three days,” he writes, “I have tasted luxury, and I have had enough.” He uses some of the money for a new house, which he and his brother build themselves.

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”If I Owned a Gun” examines his changing attitudes toward firearms, from boyhood to maturity. Dubus grew up around guns; his father had been a Marine, and they were common among his Louisiana relatives. But an encounter as a young man teaches him how easily they lead to unnecessary violence: “the mere presence of my loaded and illegal rifle had called me to it.”

The impulse to violence, for him, diminishes as he ages, except in one kind of situation: defending his family. His joy and pride in his wife and children runs throughout the book, although opening himself to that love can be difficult.

The book’s title essay is a heart-wrenching explanation for that. As a kid, Dubus loved his family’s dogs. But as an adult, he’s indifferent to them, and when Fontaine gets a dog for the kids, he barely tolerates the animal. Even he doesn’t quite understand why, until he unearths a memory about what we risk when we love a dog, or a person: everything.

Ghost Dogs cover
Ghost Dogs cover [ W. W. Norton ]

Ghost Dogs: On Killers and Kin

By Andre Dubus III

W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $28.99

If you go

The Writers in Paradise evening reading series features readings and book signings by conference faculty and guest speakers. All readings take place in Miller Auditorium at Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S., St. Petersburg. They are free and open to the public. Book sales take place half an hour before each start time, and book signings follow the readings. For information, go to writersinparadise.com/readings/.

Saturday, Jan. 13, 8 p.m.: Keynote by Morgan Jerkins (”This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America”) followed by an on-stage Q&A with conference director Les Standiford

Jan. 14, 7 p.m.: Ana Menéndez (”The Apartment”), Stewart O’Nan (”Ocean State”), Luis Alberto Urrea (”Good Night, Irene”)

Jan. 15, 7 p.m.: Madeleine Blais (”To the New Owners”), Andre Dubus III (”Such Kindness”), Helen Pruitt Wallace (”Pink Streets”)

Jan. 16, 7 p.m.: Ann Hood (“Kitchen Yarns”), Jennifer Maritza McCauley (”When Trying to Return Home”)

Jan. 18, 7 p.m.: Laura Lippman (”Prom Mom”), Gloria Muñoz (”Danzirly”), Sterling Watson (”Night Letter”)

Jan. 19, 7 p.m.: Denise Duhamel (”Second Story”), Michael Koryta (”An Honest Man”), Les Standiford (”Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu”)

Jan. 20: Jonathan Escoffery (”If I Survive You”), followed by an on-stage Q&A with Standiford