rev. of Broken Vessels by Andre Dubus

Issue #55
Fall 1991

By now, many people have heard of the 1986 accident that led to the amputation of writer Andre Dubus's left leg and cost him the use of his right one. Driving home, Dubus stopped to aid two motorists, a brother and sister. An oncoming car hit Dubus and the brother, killing the young man, but Dubus was able to push the sister to safety. The last two sections of
Broken Vessels, Dubus's collection of personal essays his first book of nonfiction deal with the resulting trauma of the accident. With the same clarity of prose and vigor of spirit found in his fiction, Dubus is unflinchingly honest in recounting his recuperation (ten operations, grueling physical therapy, every task taking three times as long), his self-doubts, and the breakup of his marriage, which produced a custody arrangement that lets him spend only four nights a month with his two daughters.

Yet this does not end up to be a morose story (and certainly not one in which Dubus will permit self-pity or regret to enter), nor it is the whole story. As inspiring as the latter essays are the earlier pieces, where Dubus defines and celebrates his devotions: to writing short fiction, the love of women and children, manhood and its attendant duties, the Marines, Catholicism, baseball, honor, friendship, and sensuality in all its forms. Accompanying these pleasures, however, are Dubus's sorrows; he is a man with unwavering standards of decency and compassion, and his outrage at seeing inequities of any kind poverty, homelessness is obvious, genuine. Equally perplexing and painful to him are the everyday difficulties of human intimacy, why it is so hard "to give to someone what only we, and God, can give: an hour's respite, or a day's, or a night's; and sometimes more than respite: sometimes joy."

Collectively, the twenty-two essays in this book mark the passage of a man learning to maintain faith in the face of these injustices and obstacles: "our bodies exist to perform the condition of our spirits: our choices, our desires, our loves. My physical mobility and my little girls have been taken from me; but I remain. So my crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses."

Dubus reminds us in
Broken Vessels of what we cannot afford to lose, what he has held on to with a tenacity pure and devout: those fundaments of passion, dignity, and kindness necessary to any pursuit or relationship, those sacraments which save each of us. This is a wonderful, courageous book.