64 Parishes

Summer 2024

Confessionals, Baseball, and Forever-Spreading Suburbs

Andre Dubus's Lafayette stories

Published: June 1, 2024
Last Updated: June 7, 2024

Confessionals, Baseball, and Forever-Spreading Suburbs

Lucentius / iStock

Borden’s Ice Cream on Johnston Street in Lafayette.

My hometown of Lafayette boasts a renowned cultural heritage—in food, music, dance, visual arts, architecture—but does not claim, for reasons I’ve never fully grasped, a rich literary history.  

I’d like to make a case for Andre Dubus, a writer rarely if ever identified with Lafayette, as one of our own. Born in Lake Charles in 1936, Dubus spent most of his life in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Though he lived in Lafayette for only a decade, these were formative childhood years, and few authors have written as critically and lovingly of Acadiana’s Hub City as Dubus. An author of realist short stories, Dubus doesn’t offer up the Lafayette of Cajun and zydeco dancehalls, backyard crawfish boils, treks along the bayou, and other local color signifiers. His is the Lafayette of quiet family gatherings, Catholic confessionals, and long days at the Little League diamond, the Lafayette of forever-spreading suburbs, the Lafayette you would only recognize if you grew up, like Dubus did, in Lafayette.  

Although Lafayette appears in his earliest published piece, “The Intruder” (1963), and two stories in his first collection, Separate Flights (1975), I recommend starting with his four linked, semi-autobiographical stories collected in Adultery & Other Choices, released in 1977. This story cycle sketches the boyhood of the author’s stand-in, Paul Clement, from the ages of ten to nineteen, roughly the same years Dubus lived in Lafayette.  

Paul attends a Catholic academy—modeled after Dubus’s alma mater, Cathedral—and pines for public school girls, smelling sweetly of perfume and bubble gum. He eats fresh figs on his cereal and, after school, a chocolate ice-cream cone from Borden’s. With two older sisters, he longs to connect with the only man at home, his father, who unfortunately insists that children should be seen, not heard. “It was as if his soul wanted to talk and hug his father but his body could not,” Dubus writes in “An Afternoon with the Old Man,” the collection’s opener. “All he could do was in silence love his father as though he were a memory.” 

Despite his old man’s frigidity, the son reveres him from afar. At night his father’s voice penetrates Paul’s bedroom walls: “Why is my son afraid of me? I’ve spanked that boy three times in ten years. What’s he afraid of?” Paul would rather replay the stories he’s overheard his father unspool over beers with friends, “memories [Paul] kept in his heart like old photographs,” Dubus writes in “Contrition.” The time his father shot cottonmouths in the rice fields. The time he, disregarding the era’s Jim Crow norms, shook the hand of a Black man. “If I hadn’t,” Paul can hear his father saying, “then who would have been the gentlemen?”  

“You could not live in a segregated town . . . and not see injustice,” Dubus later wrote in a late-career essay about a life often defined by cruelty. “I also felt involved in this injustice, and stained by it.”  

In the story “The Bully” Paul mindlessly then regretfully subjects a stray cat to abuse, revealing a thread that runs throughout Dubus’s fiction: the generational decay wrought by men’s uninterrogated violence. Men rarely connect with hugs but rather with taunts and fists. Bullies darken every playground and dinner table. A society of violent men creates more violent men, the subject of Townie, a celebrated memoir written by Dubus’s son, Andre Dubus III.  

In the final Lafayette story in Adultery & Other Choices, Paul, now nineteen, has joined the Marines to seek “honor in his father’s eyes,” just as Dubus did in 1958 after graduating from McNeese State with an English degree (“I switched to English from journalism,” he told an interviewer, “when I found out journalism was teaching me to write ass-backwards”). After leaving the Marines, Dubus enrolled in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. He published his first book, an unmemorable novel, in 1967 before settling on the short story form, which would jumpstart his publishing career, secure him an academic position teaching literature and creative writing, and earn him a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1988. He published eight collections of short fiction. But the Paul Clement stories in particular lingered in his conscience. “When I got older and looked back at those stories, I realized those weren’t my parents,” he reflected several months before his death in 1999. “Those were my memories of how I saw them when I was ten.”  

Besides the Clement stories, Dubus published several additional pieces set in Lafayette. A pair feature Billy Wells, ace pitcher for the Lafayette Brahman Bulls, a real-life, bushiest-of-the-bush-leagues team that Dubus had rooted for as a local. The Bulls played in the Louisiana-centric Evangeline League, nicknamed the “Pepper Sauce League” and “Tabasco Circuit,” and fielded players so grossly underpaid, Dubus reminisced in an essay, that fans passed a hat if one hit a homer. 

“I never get to write about Cajuns anymore because I don’t go to Louisiana,” Dubus said in a 1993 interview from his Massachusetts home. “But the phone book up here has a lot of names I grew up with.”  

Rien Fertel is the author of four books, most recently Brown Pelican.