In “Gone So Long,” his first novel since “The Garden of Last Days” in 2008, Andre Dubus III digs deeply into his considerable literary tool kit to create a courageous true-to-life tableau of working-class American life that’s rife with obsession, jealousy, tragedy, sex, firearms, resentment and, ultimately, redemption, though not the kind we might wish for.
Set in on “the strip” in Salisbury, Massachusetts, a gritty beach town north of Boston, the book tells the story of brooding outsider Danny Ahern, the son of a sign painter, known to locals as “the boy with the bad skin and hooked nose and eyes too close together.” Danny’s prospects seem to improve, though, when a chance encounter with the owner of the Himalaya lands him the coveted job of DJ for the carnival ride, spinning records inside its glass booth.
The job vaults Danny to alpha status among the beach’s careworn teens and puts him in a position to win the affections of Linda Dubie, a beautiful 16-year-old whose parents own the strip’s arcade. The two quickly become obsessed with one another, and it’s not long before Linda is pregnant and she and Danny get married. They move into an empty summer rental and do their best to scrape together a life with their baby girl, Susan.
Obsessed with the idea that Linda is seeing other men, Danny begins following her, barraging her with questions, forbidding her to leave the house. Until one night, when Linda has finally had enough. An argument concludes with Danny pulling out a knife and ending Linda’s short life, along with any hope there might have been for his own.
When Danny goes to prison, Linda’s mother, Lois, takes in Susan. After her husband leaves her and the memories of her late daughter become too difficult to face, Lois sells the arcade and moves with Susan to Florida. Although Lois does her best, Susan proves to be a difficult child who becomes an even more difficult young adult, paying little mind to Lois’ rules and running around with a gaggle of older men.
We first meet Susan when she’s in her early 40s. She’s a college professor, married to a kind and understanding man, but she’s struggling with depression, still trying to make sense of her mother’s murder. What Susan doesn’t know is that her father, now is his 60s and out on parole, is terminally ill with prostate cancer and making plans to come to Florida to see her one last time.
“Gone So Long” is, more than anything, a richly layered study of the human heart in all its vaulted glory, white-hot passion and tragic imperfection. Dubus’ genius has always been in his ability to show us ourselves, gorgeous and naked and dirty and sometimes beyond hope. His newest novel proves that he hasn’t lost his touch. When you wipe away the grit and turn on the lights, the characters in “Gone So Long” are just like us.
Gone So Long
By Andre Dubus III
W.W. Norton & Co.