Personal tragedy divides Dubus' 'Broken Vessels'



Andre Dubus. David R. Godine. 195 pages. $39.95. Andre Dubus once told an interviewer that there is nothing special about storytelling. "You ask somebody, 'How are you?' and he tells you a story."

If you conclude that Mr. Dubus finds his stories in the conversations he has and overhears in bars and at the Dairy Mart, you would be pretty much on target. If you concluded further that writing such stories is easy, you would be wrong. His short stories, famous among his fervid fans for depicting the complex inner lives of working people, are produced by a fastidious writer.

Mr. Dubus has taken the same care in the personal essays that make up "Broken Vessels," his latest book. For that reason, it may be hard for some to handle. His life has been marked by grisly, heart-tearing tragedy. Although, technically speaking, the book is divided into four parts, it is really divided into two: essays written before July 23, 1986, and those written after.

At about 1 a.m. on that date, Mr. Dubus stopped on Interstate 93, north of Boston, to help two motorists whose car was stopped in the third lane of the four-lane highway. Minutes later, he and one of the people he had stopped to help were struck by another car.

"I remember the headlights, but I do not remember the car hitting Luis Santiago and me, and I do not remember the sounds our bodies made," recalls Mr. Dubus in "Lights of the Long Night."

"Luis died, either in the ambulance, or later that night in the hospital. He was 23 years old. I do not remember leaving the ground my two legs stood on for the last instant in my life, then moving through the air, over the car's hood and windshield and roof, and falling on its trunk. I remember lying on my back on that trunk and asking someone: 'What happened?' "

The pieces that follow are stark and all-too-real accounts of a man who tries to replace anger and bitterness with gratitude, who struggles against constant pain and new paraplegia to continue to be a father (his wife was pregnant with their second child at the time of the accident -- his sixth child), husband and writer.

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