In “Gone So Long,” Andre Dubus III’s stirring new novel, a murderer and his estranged daughter are on the verge of a reunion, but only one of them is prepared for it.
Forty years ago, Daniel Ahearn killed his wife, Linda, in a fit of jealousy. Susan, the couple’s 3-year-old, was whisked away and raised by her maternal grandmother Lois. Daniel did 15 years in prison, and in the 2½ decades since he was freed, he’s stayed away from Susan.
But now, 63 and suffering from cancer, Daniel decides to visit. He mails Susan a letter explaining his plans, yet by the time she gets his note, he’s left his Massachusetts home and is approaching hers in Florida.
Susan is duly shaken. Lois is even more upset. A sturdy octogenarian, she’ll “be damned if she allowed Ahearn to breathe the same air,” Dubus writes. Lois has stashed a handgun, just in case.
It’s a story line rich with dramatic potential, and Dubus, a National Book Award finalist for 1999’s “The House of Sand and Fog,” mines it from every angle. Toggling between the 1970s and the 2010s — and returning to the hardscrabble New England setting of his memoir “Townie” — he does the important work of carefully developing his characters.
Daniel has avoided trouble since his parole. He lives alone in a trailer near the Atlantic and volunteers at a senior citizens’ center. Although his one-man furniture-repair business keeps him occupied, guilt is the primary force in his life. There’s blood in his urine, but he avoids doctors. He’s dying, and he doesn’t really mind.
Susan wasn’t physically harmed during Daniel’s crime, but she’s nonetheless a victim. Now 43, the college writing instructor feels inadequate and angry. She was raped by one of her students, yet when the school found out she’d previously had a romantic encounter with the man, she was fired. Just married, she’s not sure she loves her husband. Recently, though, she started writing a memoir, and recalling her experiences has helped her understand them.
Lois, an antiques dealer and a big-time stickler, is the book’s most colorful presence. Once, during an exhibition of items from 1950 or before, she learned that a colleague was displaying a first edition of “The Catcher in the Rye.” “It’s from ’51,” Lois told her. “Put it away or I’ll have to ask you to pack your things.” She approaches the rest of her life with similar feistiness, and for Daniel, this might mean trouble.
Dubus’ prose is unpretentious, but he’s not always subtle. In a couple of scenes, Daniel encounters mournful crows, an apparent allusion to his sins and poor health. Symbolism doesn’t get much more obvious than this. But the people at the heart of this novel feel intensely real. That’s because Dubus has the imagination, patience and empathy to make them so. A crime and its aftermath left them shattered, and more violence might be in the offing.
This is a heady plot, but it’d be nothing without such memorable characters.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
Gone So Long
By: Andre Dubus III.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 452 pages, $27.95.