Ghost Dogs: On Killers and Kin

Image of Ghost Dogs: On Killers and Kin
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“In carefully crafted words, Dubus III both records and enacts his transcendence of the often brutal facts of his upbringing and our time.”

Andre Dubus III is a poet of masculinity. In the lyrical autobiographical essays of Ghost Dogs, he limns not toxic masculinity but its opposite: a masculinity rooted in family life, love, and hope.

From the beginning, he invites the reader to share his intimate feelings. In the first essay of the book, “Fences and Fields,” he is poised on the brink of becoming a father to a daughter. When he is joined by a neighbor girl in his task of digging postholes and placing posts, he sees the girl’s presence as foreshadowing his daughter’s birth. His gift for linking down-to-earth reality with emotional truths is seen when their joint task of placing the posts leads him to reflect on the “green fields” of an interior life nourished by love. 

His brother and father appear at the end of the essay, crying with joy, while he pays tribute to his heroic wife for giving birth. Aware of the ways his daughter may be oppressed in the future, he sees fatherhood as making men advocates for equality. The literal posts he places become signposts of the continuity of his life and family.

The stance of protector leaves him vulnerable, however. The second essay, “The Golden Zone,” describes his part-time job as a bounty hunter before he was married. The habit of writing fiction blinded him to actual danger because of the “weakening boundary between my imaginary world on the page and what I was now doing.” Seeking a killer in Mexico, he notes that “I began to feel like a thief—like a white bird of prey.” 

His careful observation of people and places illuminates a variety of scenes and people, from a bar in Mazatlán, Mexico, to his grandparents’ home in rural Louisiana to a gathering of writers in New York City. His gift for suspenseful pacing makes each essay as propulsive as a murder mystery. 

The stories are loosely knit together by the theme of a man learning how to be at ease in the world without falling into the self-destructive tendencies of some men he has known. Knitting itself becomes a way to connect himself temporarily to a girlfriend, their knitting together a “soft woolen truce.” A powerful essay about guns becomes a meditation on manhood and mortality in its culminating confrontation with his aged father-in-law.

The essay most closely connected to his career as a writer is “Carver and Dubus, New York City, 1988.” The author takes his wheelchair-bound father to meet Raymond Carver, the writer who most inspired his father’s short stories. This essay reveals the source of the author’s fear that his desire to help may backfire, for himself or others: his father was injured when he stopped to help two victims of a traffic accident. It also reveals that “writing had gotten me off that self-destructive path” which has led some friends of his to early deaths. Another essay on writing takes us into the process by which a writer can “enter one true word at a time that dream world that lies beneath the surface of wherever we are. . . . “

The fragility of the human body is a theme that emerges as the essays progress, as well as the capacity love gives us to face dreadful circumstances with hope. Though the book’s subtitle implies a story about violence, this is really a story about love and tenderness. In a telling moment, he compares nailing a shingle to the outside wall of the house he builds for his family to “pulling the covers up to my daughter’s chin right after she fell asleep.” Dubus is a careful builder, writer, and father.

Andre Dubus III creates himself on and through the page, especially as a father since his own father was mostly absent from his life. The author shows his own capacity for forgiveness when he describes his father as “loving and generous and kind.” In the last essay, however, he explores the legacy of his broken childhood by showing the paradoxical and tragic way in which, for him and many others, the desire to protect the vulnerable, including oneself, can shade into violence.

One reads this book with the sense of anticipation that accompanies the reading of a suspenseful novel. Andre Dubus III’s survival is the story here, the way in which he overcame his belief as a young man that “if I surrendered to love . . .  I would die.” In carefully crafted words, Dubus III both records and enacts his transcendence of the often brutal facts of his upbringing and our time.