'Requiem, Mass' by John Dufresne

Novel writing 101: Author does it by the book

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John Dufresne is afflicted with an increasingly common condition among modern novelists -- PDD (plot deficit disorder).

The symptoms are an inability to concentrate on a cliched story line for long before slipping away into digressions and unconnected riffs. Try to follow this one, apropos of nothing:


By John Dufresne
Norton ($24.95)


"We are all blessed with the gift of perhaps. We all feel more than we can imagine. We all imagine more than we can remember. We all remember more than we can know. And we all know more than we can say."

If you understand any of that free association, consider this passage into the existential:

"Is there then a purpose to existence? Are space and time independent of their contents? ... Why did the Big Bang happen? What is the fate of the universe?...Why do we wonder? Why do we sing? Why do we laugh? Why do we need to die?"

To which I add, "Why do we need to read 'Requiem, Mass?' "

Unlike Dufresne, I have an answer: We don't, unless we are students in a creative writing course somewhere and are wondering what the process of writing a novel might look like.

Dufresne, much to nobody's surprise, teaches creative writing at a Florida university. This novel is a kind of textbook for his classes. It's about how Dufresne set out to write a book about himself that might be or might not be entirely true. He tosses in a few academic references -- two horses are named Tess and Jude -- or increasingly obscure pop culture comments like girlfriends Betty and Veronica.

"If you call it a memoir, no one will believe you," the novelist's girlfriend tells him. "If you say it's a novel, people will assume you're writing about yourself."

So, he tries to do both. His "plot" concerns a boy named Johnny and his younger, painfully cute sister, Audrey, and their train wrecks of a mother and father. Autobiographical details abound.

Dad, a long-distance trucker, has another family or two sprinkled around the country while Mom is so mentally ill she can't recognize her kids, takes a bath in gasoline with a cigarette and matches at the ready and smashes her head through windows.

While the kids cope with these disasters, a cast of thousands parades through their lives and frequently manages to remind Dufresne of another character unrelated to the story, but who is included because the author thought he was funny.

Finally, our clever novelist introduces two characters in chapter one, then brings them back in another form near the end to provide a tidy conclusion to his story.

This is what we fiction writers do, Dufresne tells us, so watch closely. Nothing up my sleeve but old writer tricks. Presto, change-o! Resolution at last!

Transparency is not a good thing for fiction. Instead, we need a puzzle, a mystery, a clue for insight. We don't need a flashy show-off for a novelist, but that's what we get in Dufresne.

Contact book editor Bob Hoover at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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