The distinct smell of winter

The distinct smell of winter

Jefferson Chase writes about The Winter Father by Andre Dubus Snr.

Whisky & Culture | 28 Dec 2003 | Issue 36 | By Jefferson Chase

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Watching the leaves fall off the trees in Central Europe this autumn, I was reminded that one of the consolations of winter is that
it provides a perfect excuse to stay inside with a good drink and a good book. And I was reminded, too, of a short story by Andre Dubus Snr called The Winter Father, which captures the austerity of frost-bitten New England as well as anything this side of The Scarlet Letter.Dubus, who died in 1999, was a hulking Hemingway-like figure, who lost one leg and the use of the other in 1968, and the title figure of this story, Peter Jackmann, is also described as the survivor of an accident that killed others. But The Winter Father isn’t about physical scars. It’s about an uncertain and increasingly dissipate father’s attempts to establish a new relationship with his children after a painful divorce.It’s not an easy task. Lonely nights drinking bourbon are interrupted by awkward weekend visits with his son and daughter, and feelings of
guilt after he has returned them to their mother.Next morning when he got into his car, the inside of the windshield was iced. He used a small plastic scraper from his glove compartment. As he scraped the middle and right side, he realized the grey ice curling and falling from the glass was the frozen breath of his children.The prose is as clear and hard as a frozen lake in Dubus’ native Merrimack Valley. Fans of the florid and the sentimental are best advised to give this story a miss.Desperate to be accepted by the kids he sired and with whom he no longer lives, Jackmann crams their weekend visits full of activities: the Boston Aquarium, the Museum of Fine Arts, moviehouses and even a jazz bar. All the while, he has an intuition that he is missing the boat.
It’s a familiar feeling, I suspect, among divorced fathers.His life seems to take a turn for the better, when he strikes up a conversation in his neighborhood local.Within an hour she came in and sat at the bar, one empty chair away from him: a woman in her late twenties, dark eyes and light brown hair. Soon they were talking. He liked her because she smiled a lot. He also liked her drink: Jack Daniel’s on the rocks.But even after he has taken her home and to bed, the kids remain foremost on his mind.…he hoped they would like her; again he saw them hiking up a trail through pines, stopping for Kathi and David to rest; a sudden bounding deer; the camp beside the stream; he thanked his member for doing its work down there while the rest of him was in the mountains of New Hampshire.It’s a long winter, both literally and metaphorically, and Jackmann has no option other than just to wait it out. With and without his new-found lover.Dubus is often compared, rightly, with another great master of the American short story – Raymond Carver. But though they share a terse, unsentimental style, and the theme of drinking to combat loneliness, Dubus was far more sympathetic to his figures’ frailties than Carver usually was. Reading Dubus, you get the sense of a resolutely clear-eyed author struggling nonetheless to find something intact and strong in what he once termed elsewhere his “broken vessels.”He knew whereof he wrote. The accident that cost Dubus his mobility for 31 years happened on Interstate Route 96, when he stopped to help a disabled motorist and was struck by a car, saving the other driver’s life in the process. The irony that he himself became disabled – or in his words “a cripple” – from an act of a charity no doubt raised an occasional bitter smile. But his friends remembered him after his death as a jolly figure, who ran a cost-free writing seminar for aspiring authors and enjoyed action movies. Readers of this magazine are encouraged to pick up a copy of his work and, when they read it, to raise a toast: Dubus was one of those rare writers, who truly deserves to be called a hero.
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