Saturday, August 28, 2010

Short-a-Day: Andre Dubus's "Blessings"

Originally published in Dancing After Hours, 1997. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 98.

Deliberately slow, but with a delicate and earned pacing, this is a terrific story about survival: what that means. He hints at it from the very first line--"Early in the morning on the first anniversary of the day her family survived, the mother woke"--then spends the next several pages establishing what their life is like. Rusty (so called by her husband Cal, "because of her hair, because he was in love with her") is a practical woman, who acknowledges nature and the good intentions of people who do not: "Why didn't they know that, having killed or run off for buildings and asphalt the deer's natural predators, people had to perform the functions of coyotes and wolves?" She is not a woman whose heart is "accustomed to a soft cushion of quotidian calm," and we'll learn why, as we flash back not only to the previous year--a shark attack--but all the way to Vietnam, a time when her baby daughter almost died of pneumonia. Likewise, we'll see the funeral for the captain and his first mate before we see the actual accident--we'll see what it is like not to survive, but to be survived.

The next time we flashback, it is to the escape: the captain, helping the family aboard a helicopter as the first mate's "eyes and mouth widened in final horror and the absolute loss of hope," he propelled downward, the family saved by upward propulsion--in other words, an infinite gaining of hope. But before they get away, Dubus throws out an even bigger surprise: Rusty sees the captain's dismembering--"the captain's right shoulder still moved upward as though it or the captain still believed it was attached to the arm"--and screams, which causes Cal to leap back into the water to save the man. It's a totally irrational moment, the sort of thing a clever writer would hold back, but Dubus is right there with his characters, and so they attempt to save the man with a first-aid kit, even though he is obviously gone. There are more revelations, too: for one, it was the captain's fault the boat sank--he had inadequately maintained it--and for another, they had been swimming there for forty-seven minutes, kicking sharks away from their life preservers. To jump back into that? To have lived through that?

And yet, to have lived through that. Just as Vietnam become a shadow of her sick daughter, just as the perils of a shark attack paled beside Rusty's fear that a shark might swallow up one of her children before she could manage to shove her own foot into its mouth, so too does the actual event somewhat pale among the life that now continues. There is trauma, but she deals with it: she takes a sleeping pill, as she dozes off, she whispers love to her husband, tells him that "It was the worst day most families have ever had" and "But it was the best, too." Dubus has Rusty reflect on her fishing expeditions, both to show us that she's knowledgeable about boats and to show us that she prizes catching a bluefish far more than a cod or a mackerel--because of the vigor of the work. The same for hunting, which gives her a feeling of "sacredness, a joy subdued by sorrow not for the dead bird, or even for her killing it, but for something she knew in her heart yet could not name...." She does not blame the sharks, and in the end, she forgives the captain. She feels sacredness, she feels joy, she feels sorrow. Most of all, she lives. How many of us know what that really feels like? This is a start.

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