Rambach's 'Fighting Gravity': Confronting truth with art

On Books

April 01, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Serious writers who have suffered agonies rarely have the option of shutting up about them. If their craftsmanship can't conquer the unbearable, the argument goes, then how can it be trusted as a tool of truth? Dodging that confrontation is -- well, artistically dodgy.

Peggy Rambach, third of the four wives of the late Andre Dubus, himself a powerful writer and a tortured soul, is no dodger. That's starkly obvious from "Fighting Gravity" (Steerforth Press, 144 pages, $19). Why she chose to make the story a novel instead of a straight-out memoir had to be a very private decision. But it is quite clear that her new book is drawn directly from her life with Dubus.

It's a tragic tale, bravely and cleanly told.

The novel begins with a ritual: Monday night at the movies. The characters are a married couple -- Gerard Babineau and Ellie Rifkin. He's in a wheelchair, with white beard and hair. She has long blonde hair, 22 years younger than he, customarily assumed by strangers to be his daughter.

His debility is recent. Stopping on a highway at night to help a couple in trouble, Babineau was struck down by an oncoming car as he shoved a woman out of harm's way. Now, he and Rifkin are industriously adjusting, trying to make the most of a radically truncated life.

Then, Rambach flashes back to write of Babineau's first hours in a hospital, unable to speak, near death, comforted by morphine. She does that with simple, clear descriptive words, no internal agonizing -- the color of broken, exposed bone, the smell of a favorite nurse's cosmetics.

She writes with lean language -- disarmingly direct -- but with deft, almost seamless shifts of time and place that create tension, suspense. The reader is told of events, and often only later learns their origins or causes. She handles voice very neatly, changing both vocabulary and meter as vantage point shifts from Babineau to Ellie and back.

Parallel times

The book's driving counterpoint is the interplay of its two time frames. One is a narrative line that begins in the immediate aftermath of Babineau's accident and proceeds until the end of the marriage. The other starts with the couple's first meeting, coming together, marrying, having a child -- his fifth -- and building their life together.

She was a student when they met -- in a bar with a university crowd after he had given a lecture. She was 19, he 41. They flirted, and kissed in a hallway and the next day he found her. The accident is perhaps a decade later.

Like Dubus, Gerard Babineau was born in Louisiana, a practicing Roman Catholic despite his three marriages and considerable other wanderings. His earlier two marriages are described as chaotic. A five-year Marine Corps veteran, he can be childish, brawling, petulant, self-indulgent. He drinks a great deal, and is a moderately celebrated writer.

Not long after the couple met and became close but still distant, he invited her to sing in a neighborhood bar that encouraged such things. She had sung well, and the crowd loved it and then Rambach writes:

"And this is when she falls in love with him; the whole bar hooting and stomping because she has surprised them by not sounding the way her long blonde hair and make-up-less face made them think she would. And walking triumphant, off the parquet and out of the lights, she sees she has surprised him too. That though he smiles and stretches toward her the arm that will publicly claim her, his eyes are afraid. They are afraid and full of yearning, like the eyes of a child who has no choice but to ask for tenderness from the same hand that beats him. And it breaks her heart."

Recounting detail

After the accident, Babineau's recovery is painfully, pitifully slow, but they try to make the most of what they have. Rambach recounts the events, the incidents, of the young woman's conscious experience in extraordinary detail -- reportorial almost to the point of seeming clinical.

She also does well with Babineau, even though he is a very private, inaccessible man. The writing is powerfully concise, a poet's prose.

The narrative swings between the mobile, physically active, energetic Babineau and the crippled one, forever unable to get in and out of his wheelchair. Ellie, lovingly becomes a virtual body servant to him, celebrating every bit of the qualities of life that remain accessible to him.

Babineau struggles to deal with his deprivation, but begins losing the battle. He becomes increasingly distant, then bitter. His frustrations turn into a rage that finally expresses itself in violence and abuse of Ellie. Near the book's end, Ellie leaves him.

Rambach recounts all this by showing, not telling -- never trying to explain the emotional turmoils inside either of the characters' hearts and minds. She thus avoids the pitfall of sentimentality that threatens most attempts to describe the impenetrable complexity of human spirits imprisoned in an absence of alternatives -- the futile imperative of fighting gravity.

Andre Dubus, a powerfully provocative novelist ("Voices From the Moon," "The Lieutenant"), short story writer and essayist, in 1986 was injured and crippled precisely as Babineau is described to have been. Ultimately, Rambach left him and he married again. After the accident, he went into a fallow period but resumed writing successfully, won a MacArthur Award in 1988 and died of a heart attack in 1999, at the age of 62.

Rambach's book is deeply, desperately sad -- a story of love that turns into a tale of bitterness. It is deeply human -- memorable and artful.

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