The characters in Andre Dubus’ novel, Gone So Long, can’t find their equilibrium. They can’t sit still, they can’t forgive themselves for what they’ve done or who they are; they can’t calm down. It’s not hard to understand why. In a moment of rage, Daniel Ahearn murdered his wife in the presence of their three-year old daughter, Susan. Although Susan can’t remember the incident, it upends her life: her father goes to prison and Susan is brought up by her grandmother in rural Florida, far away from her childhood home. She believes her parents were killed in a car crash. It isn’t until she’s a teenager that she learns the true story.
When the novel opens, it’s forty years after the murder and Daniel has been out of prison for twenty-five years. He’s living in a trailer supporting himself by re-caning chairs, a skill he learned in prison. His life is minimalist, claustrophobic, and he’s dying of cancer. Susan is forty-three, married, a writer with a college teaching job, but there’s no joy in her life. She suffers from depression and can’t reciprocate her kind husband’s love. Her grandmother still rages about the loss of her daughter.
Daniel wants to see Susan before he dies and locates her on the Internet. He packs up his truck and unbeknownst to Susan, heads down the coast to find her. The reader knows that his hopes of explaining his life to his daughter are delusional. Susan has ambivalent feelings about seeing her father but his crime occupies large portions of her waking mind and she begins to write about it, hoping for some clarity and peace. Her grandmother rages on; there’s no hope of forgiveness from her.
As Daniel heads down to Florida and Susan continues writing her memoir, Dubus builds up the tension by filling in the background to the story. The Kirkus reviewer wrote that “Dubus puts this pot on a very slow boil, continuing to fill in the backstory as he inches his characters toward their climactic meeting.” Just so. I had to stop reading periodically to slow it down even more. What would happen when they met? One of the characters has a gun and wants to use it. I remember years ago reading Dubus’s novel House of Sand and Fog and experiencing the same emotion, needing to take breaks from the sadness and fear.
Ahearn could be a hard character to like, but in Dubus’s hands, while he’s not exactly empathetic, we get that he’s flawed and vulnerable. In parallel to Susan’s memoir is the long letter Ahearn writes to her, hoping to win a place in her life. How is that going to work out? It’s Dubus’s character-driven, evocative writing, filled with bottled-up emotion that keeps us on the hook.