Dufresne, John 1948–
Dufresne, John 1948–
(John Louis Dufresne)
PERSONAL: Born January 30, 1948, in Worcester, MA; son of Bernard V. (an electric company supervisor) and Doris (an office worker) Dufresne; married Marilyn Virbasius, 1971 (divorced, 1978); married Cindy Chinelly (an adjunct professor), May 18, 1985; children: Tristan Jude. Ethnicity: "French-Canadian." Education: Worcester State College, B.A., 1970; University of Arkansas, M.F.A., 1984; attended State University of New York at Binghamton, 1987–88. Politics: "Populist Left." Religion: "Lapsed Catholic." Hobbies and other interests: Outsider art, reading, travel.
ADDRESSES: Home—Dania Beach, FL. Office—Department of English, Florida International University, North Miami, FL 33181. Agent—Richard P. McDonough, 34 Pinewood, Irvine, CA 92604.
CAREER: Northeast Louisiana University, Monroe, instructor in composition and creative writing, 1984–87; Augusta College, Augusta, GA, instructor in composition, creative writing, and humanities, 1988–89; Florida International University, North Miami, began as instructor, became associate professor of creative writing, 1989–. Has also worked as a social worker and crisis intervention counselor; served as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War. Has worked variously as a cab driver, bartender, janitor, house painter, and in a plastics factory.
MEMBER: National Writers Union, Authors Guild, National Council of Teachers of English, Associated Writing Programs, Popular Culture Association in the South.
AWARDS, HONORS: Transatlantic Review Award, 1983; PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, 1984; Yankee Magazine Fiction Award, 1988; Florida State Arts Council grant, 1992; New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 1994, for Louisiana Power and Light, and 1996, for Love Warps the Mind; honorary doctor of literature, Worcester State College, 1999.
The Way That Water Enters Stone (short stories), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1991.
Louisiana Power and Light (novel), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1994.
Love Warps the Mind a Little (novel), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
Deep in the Shade of Paradise (novel), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2002.
The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2003.
Johnny Too Bad: Stories, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
Louisiana Power and Light has also been written as a screenplay.
SIDELIGHTS: John Dufresne is the author of short stories and novels that have received critical praise for their parodic mixing of humor and pain. Richard Bernstein commented in the New York Times that Dufresne "is an abundantly talented storyteller with a habit for droll, self-referential parody."
Dufresne's The Way That Water Enters Stone is a collection of short stories set in New England and the deep South. Many of the pieces deal with relationships and loss, and a number of characters are adults whose spouses have left them, or they are children of broken marriages. In the title story, a teacher's marriage disintegrates as his children grow up and leave home. "Surveyors" concerns a boy, his grandfather, and their vegetable garden, which is soon to be destroyed by developers. In "A Long Line of Dreamers," a former priest is dying of cancer, and his family struggles to say good-bye. Sun-Sentinel contributor Chauncey Mabe called the stories in the collection "spare and elegant and carefully constructed," and termed the author a "born storyteller." Josephine Humphreys, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that Dufresne writes "the kind of story that grabs the heart and won't let go."
Dufresne's first novel, Louisiana Power and Light, was described by New York Times Book Review contributor Jill McCorkle as "a tragicomic example of self-fulfilling prophecy." It is the story of the ill-fated and gene-cursed Fontana family, who appeared earlier in the story collection, The Way That Water Enters Stone. Billy Wayne Fontana drives a truck for Louisiana Power and Light. He had planned to become a priest, believing that his celibacy would ensure the extinction of genetic flaws that had afflicted his family for generations. Instead, he ends up marrying twice and fathering a series of children to carry on the Fontana heritage.
Billy tells the story in his own meandering words, in what McCorkle called his "perfectly pitched Southern vernacular," darting into the past, rebounding into the future, confusing some readers, but surprising and enchanting others. McCorkle wrote: "He offers a plot line as complex as the network of backwoods roads these people and their ancestors have committed to memory. The miraculous beauty of his tale-telling is that dead ends simply do not exist." When Billy begins to hear voices in his head, misfortune strikes, and one pitiful event leads to another until the accumulation of grief is almost overwhelming. A New Yorker reviewer commented: "Billy Wayne's story assumes the immediacy of revelation as the self-destruction running through the Fontana past … becomes his own inescapable reality." Favorable reviews of Louisiana Power and Light point to the charming vignettes and asides that fill the novel to the brim. McCorkle reported: "Though many of the asides are not directly related to the story at hand … there isn't a single one that isn't well worth the time." Moreover, she added, "these bits of local color … are firmly held in place by a story that is much bigger than that of Billy Wayne Fontana." In Booklist, reviewer Bill Ott called Louisiana Power and Light "a beguiling mix of Faulkner and Barry Gifford," in which Dufresne "takes this nearly surrealistic story of southern-style squalor well beyond parody." Albert E. Wilhelm commented in Library Journal that Dufresne "distills high comedy from intense pain, philosophical insight from bayou murkiness." McCorkle concluded: "From wildly funny lines to achingly sad turns, Mr. Dufresne brings Monroe, LA, and every road that leads there, into a much-deserved light."
For his second novel, Dufresne returns to his native New England. Love Warps the Mind a Little is set in Worcester, Massachusetts. It is filled with characters of "French ancestry and Catholic upbringing," wrote Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post Book World. These include Laf Proulx, a fiction writer who narrates the story that, according to Drabelle, "seems to have been not so much written as taken down while it was happening," and Laf's girlfriend Judi and "her magnificently disturbed family." The book is populated with other eccentrics such as Laf's father, whose eyes often see things upside down or backward, Mr. Lesperence, whose job is to soften synthetic hair to be used in wigs for dolls, and Pozzo Beckett, a boy convinced that he is the sun. In this staunchly Catholic community, "Laf is no believer," Drabelle reported. "He muddles along without the Church or God, trying to make sense of an unmoored world." He has left his wife of many years for a girlfriend who is dying of cancer. He works as a cook, sells a few stories now and then, and documents the lives of his friends and neighbors in meticulous and often amusing detail.
Some critics have noted the seemingly ironic setting of much of Dufresne's work; the author has a French-Canadian background and was raised in Massachusetts, but much of his writing takes place in the American South. But after migrating to Arkansas and then Florida, Dufresne discovered that the people of the South fit in with his idea of what story characters should be, which Poets and Writers contributor Eve Richardson characterized as "unfailingly fallible, often quirky, human to the last molecule, seeking a coherent existence in an oftmad world, and pursued by Trouble."
In Deep in the Shade of Paradise, which is Dufresne's version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Grisham Loudermilk decides to marry Ariane Thevenot in the small town of Shiver-de-Freeze, Louisiana, but not before he decides to have one last romantic fling. The town itself, with the accumulated quirks of its residents, becomes the main character in the story, and the labyrinthine network of family genealogies and relationships serve to complicate local events. With characters like Siamese twin girls, child prodigy Boudou Fontana, and an eccentric Alzheimer's patient named Royce Birdsong, the story is a meditation on American life, according to some reviewers. "That his characters are frequently dysfunctional reflects nothing more exotic than our culture's malaise: Dufresne characters dwell, often, in lonely, arid places of the heart familiar to many readers," wrote Richardson. In summarizing the exploits of the huge cast and their ever-changing romantic couplings, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly likened the book to "John Irving, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor or Max Shulman … on peyote juice."
Dufresne's next collection of stories, Johnny Too Bad: Stories, takes place in Southern Florida. The eighteen stories are linked to the title story (the longest in the collection), in which the narrator, his beloved dog, and his ex-girlfriend refuse to evacuate as a hurricane approaches. The other stories concern a wide variety of narrators—from a man who stays married to an unfaithful wife for thirty years to a sociopathic killer who gives a ride to a drunk woman—most of whom are in relationships that have taken a turn for the worse. The overall effect is a mood "marinated in melancholy and sprinkled with wit," according to a writer for Publishers Weekly.
Dufresne told CA: "I think it is a great privilege to be able to write, to spend the day thinking about whatever it is I think is important at that moment, be it homeless-ness, separation, apartheid, love, or blood-sucking capitalists. What more could I ask?
"Place shapes characters in a story and it also shapes the writer of the story. The most important influence on my writing was the neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I grew up—and the people who lived there. The neighborhood is where I heard my first stories around my grandmother's kitchen table—stories about my grandfather's latest drinking bout; about the motorcycle boys at the Jay-Dee Grille who looked just like the Everly Brothers; about the people we'd seen that morning at mass and the no-good they were up to. They are the people I write for, as well as about."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, July, 1994, Bill Ott, review of Louisiana Power and Light, pp. 1921-1922; January 1, 2002, review of Deep in the Shade of Paradise, p. 808.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1994, review of Louisiana Power and Light, p. 574; December 1, 2001, review of Deep in the Shade of Paradise, p. 1628; January 15, 2005, review of Johnny Too Bad: Stories, p. 69.
Library Journal, June 1, 1994, Albert E. Wilhelm, review of Louisiana Power and Light, p. 156.
New Yorker, July 25, 1994, review of Louisiana Power and Light, p. 81.
New York Times, February 7, 1997, Richard Bernstein, review of Love Warps the Mind, p. C33.
New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1991, Josephine Humphreys, review of The Way That Water Enters Stone, p. 10; July 31, 1994, Jill McCorkle, review of Louisiana Power and Light, p. 9; February 16, 1997, Karen Karbo, review of Love Warps the Mind, p. 11.
Poets and Writers, March-April 2002, Eve Richardson, "The Trouble He's Seen: The Tragicomic Vision of John Dufresne."
Publishers Weekly, January 11, 1991, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Way that Water Enters Stone, p. 89; November 19, 2001, review of Deep in the Shade of Paradise, p. 46; March 11, 2002, Brewster Milton Robertson, interview with John Dufresne, p. 47; November 29, 2004, review of Johnny Too Bad, p. 21.
Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL), July 28, 1991, Chauncey Mabe, review of The Way That Water Enters Stone.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 19, 1997, review of The Way That Water Enters Stone, p. 3.
Washington Post Book World, February 9, 1997, Dennis Drabelle, review of Love Warps the Mind, p. 6.
BookPage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (October 26, 2006), Ellen Kanner, "John Dufresne on Writing, Love, and Death."
Identity Theory, http://www.identitytheory.com/ (March 21, 2002), Robert Birnbaum, "Interview: John Dufresne."
John Dufresne Home Page, http://www.johndufresne.com (October 26, 2006).
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (February 23, 2005), Andrew O'Hehir, review of Johnny Too Bad.