Looking admirably youthful for a man in his 53rd year, novelist John Dufresne waves PW a friendly greeting from the podium of the Town Hall meeting room at the picturesque planned community of Seaside, Fla., where he is just finishing his opening session at Florida International University's annual writing conference. With his unruly mop of Gene Wilder hair and decked out in sweatshirt, threadbare jeans and road-weary high-tops, this postmodern flower child is blissfully unaware that he might be mistaken for a dissolute drifter. Answering questions from eager students, however, Dufresne is clearly a man devoted to his craft. His third novel, Deep in the Shade of Paradise (Forecasts, Nov. 19, 2001, starred review), was released by Norton last month.
Walking from the classroom to Sundog Books, gawking like a tourist at the brick-paved streets, Victorian cottages and soaring beach pavilions of this made-up microcosm of early Americana, PW listens as Dufresne explains his novel's conceit. "Deep in the Shade of Paradise explores love and death, imagination and self, memory and forgetting. It's about the importance of our personal stories. We are who we remember and who we imagine--and it's about our collective stories--there is no family without a family story."
Deep in the Shade of Paradise continues the bawdy hijinks of the oddball denizens of the Louisiana bayous that Dufresne originated in his debut collection The Way That Water Enters Stone (1991) and revisited in his debut novel, Louisiana Power & Light (1994). At the new novel's center is Boudou (sounds like "who do" and is diminutive for Bergeron Boudeleaux) deBastrop, a precocious teenager with eidetic memory. Boudou's mama, Earlene, is a feisty hillbilly songwriter. His daddy, Billy Wayne, died in 1988 (Louisiana Power & Light), the day of Boudou's conception, leaving him sole survivor of the deBastrop clan. Sharing the spotlight is Adlai Birdsong, who--21 and desperate for love--till keeps house for his mother and his Alzheimer's-afflicted father. There is a libidinous bride-to-be, intent upon last flings with Adlai; a priest rethinking his vow of celibacy; a set of Siamese twins; and a supporting cast worthy of the Coen brothers.
In 1997, during the four-year interim between Louisiana Power & Light and Deep in the Shade of Paradise, Dufresne published Love Warps the Mind a Little, a stand-alone novel with Worcester, Mass., as the setting. Now, eyeing his getup, it is easy to see this archetypal blue-collar hippie growing up in Worcester during the '60s and attending a Catholic boys' high school, dreaming of becoming a Bosox catcher.
"I was a terrible student and a passable baseball player," Dufresne confesses. "I managed to get into Worcester State, the local teacher's college, where I continued my unimpressive scholarly record until I got mono is and had to drop out for a year." "Ironically, having to drop out of school turned my life around. Until that happened, I had no thoughts about writing. The fiction I read in high school did nothing for me. Then, I read Catcher in the Rye and was transported. With plenty of time to think and read, it gradually came over me that I really wanted to be smart and I reenrolled at Worcester. This time, I wound up editor of the school paper and president of the student government."
Following graduation in 1970, Dufresne suffered seven years as a drug crisis counselor before he finally rebelled, quit his job, and his first marriage ended in divorce. "I worked as housepainter and assorted jobs, all the time writing, having no clue whether I was any good. In 1982, I decided to enroll in the M.F.A. program at Arkansas and find out."
Completing his M.F.A. in 1984, Dufresne and poet classmate Cindy Chinelly left Fayetteville to teach at Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe. Nurtured in a hotbed of emerging writers like Steve Barthelme, Dufresne began publishing stories as Monroe became a creative wellspring for The Way That Water Enters Stone and two of Dufresne's three novels. In late 1987, John and Cindy (now married with a son, Tristan) migrated to Worcester State, then to SUNY-Binghamton. During this odyssey, former Little, Brown editor Richard McDonough read Dufresne's stories and became his agent.
"In 1988, I finally gave up trying to survive on a stipend and tutorial fees. I took a job at Augusta College [Ga.] and things started looking up. I got to be director of Sandhills Writers Conference and Dick [McDonough] placed The Way That Water Enters Stone with Jill Bialosky at Norton. In 1989, FIU hired me to teach in Miami at both the graduate and undergrad level," Dufresne says, recapping his history.
At FIU, Dufresne gradually gained recognition. The Way Water Enters Stone was named a New York Times Summer Reading Choice. Both subsequent novels were selected New York Times Notable Books of the Year. About current work in progress, he enthuses, "My biggest immediate project is a screenplay for Louisiana Power & Light currently under development by Bonnie Timmermann and Billy Bob Thornton."
Now, sitting on the porch steps of Sundog Books, Dufresne espouses his philosophy of fiction in general. "It's about narrative itself and how it's shaped by letters, jokes, essays, lectures, songs, lists, anecdotes and menus. These are the digressions that enliven our journey. These are the lies that tell the truth."