Fictional city has parallels to Worcester

Commonwealth’s ‘Heart’ is called ‘Requiem’ in new Dufresne novel

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2008

To novelist John Dufresne, Worcester is a sacred place.

“It’s where all the important things in my life happened – my first adventure, my first girlfriend,” Mr. Dufresne said. “When I go back I just drive around and I’m reminded of people. The landscape of the imagination, that’s what Worcester is to me.”

Mr. Dufresne departed the city for the South 26 years ago. Since then, he has written novels set in Louisiana and short stories set in Florida. But he always returns to Worcester – both in real life and in his fiction.

Mr. Dufresne’s seventh book, “Requiem, Mass.” (Norton, $24.95), was published earlier this month. Requiem is, in fact, Worcester.

Mr. Dufresne, 60, was born and raised in the city. He lived at Lincolnwood, in Great Brook Valley, and then on Grafton Hill, where his parents, Lefty and Doris Dufresne, still reside. Iandoli’s, Sharfman’s and Mechanics Hall all are mentioned in the novel. Other places, such as “Bob Cousy High School,” have been altered, and some have familiar associations.

“I was playing around with the mythology of Worcester in my mind, being playful and letting people really know where Requiem is,” Mr. Dufresne explained by telephone from his home in Dania Beach, Fla., outside of Miami. “Requiem is not really the Worcester that existed. It’s been changed through memories and time.”

“Requiem, Mass.” is both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. It is the story of Johnny Boy and his sister, Audrey, who walks her cat in a baby stroller. Their mother, Frances, is prone to mania and hallucinations. Their father, Rainy, is a mostly absent long-haul truck driver with a second life. To keep his dysfunctional family together, Johnny Boy invents elaborate cover stories. But after Frances completely unravels and is hospitalized, Johnny Boy and Audrey find themselves in their father’s truck, hurtling south to his other life in Louisiana. Rainy’s girlfriend, Stevie, turns out to be a far more nurturing and loving woman than Frances. But Johnny Boy knows that ultimately he must return home to Requiem and to his own mother.

Mr. Dufresne is a true storyteller, and his novels are filled with details that define his myriad characters, who seem both alien and oddly familiar. The occupants of his fictional realm are very real to him, so much so that he himself wonders what they will do next.

“I start with a character, and he or she is intriguing,” Mr. Dufresne said. “Maybe in every character there’s a little of yourself, your own emotional history. Obviously, in Johnny Boy there’s a boy more like me, but there’s also me in Audrey. I say, `Let me give her some trouble and see what happens. What’s he going to do and what’s going to stop him.’”

Mr. Dufresne was always a pretty good writer, but he didn’t discover literature until he was a student at St. John’s High School, which moved to Shrewsbury from Worcester the year after he graduated. He was captivated by “The Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“I thought, `This is what I want to write. I want to tell a story that will do for my readers what those books did for me – take me out of my world and put me in these fictional worlds that are as real to me as the guy in the next aisle in the classroom,’” he said.

He graduated from Worcester State College in 1970, but the writing career in the back of his mind still did not seem possible. He went to work at Friendly House and moved on to an after-school drop-in center. He and other staff members started a literary magazine, “The Little Apple,” to get the kids to write. The children lost interest, but Mr. Dufresne and the staff kept it going. “We did short stories and poems,” he said. “I had stories in there, and I edited it.”

Then Mr. Dufresne got laid off and took it as a sign that he should pursue his real dream – writing fiction. He got accepted to the renowned creative writing program at the University of Arkansas, where he developed his storytelling skills under the guidance of mentors such as William N. Harrison, John Clellan Holmes and the late poet Jim Whitehead. He also met and married his wife, Cindy Chinelly. The couple has a son, Tristan, now 22.

Mr. Dufresne and Ms. Chinelly both ended up landing jobs at the university in Monroe, La., and Mr. Dufresne became enthralled with the people and the Southern culture. Two of his best-known novels – “Louisiana Power & Light” (1994) and the sequel “Deep in the Shade of Paradise” (2002) – are set in Monroe. He is hailed as a writer of classic Southern novels.

“I’ve always written about Worcester and about Monroe,” Mr. Dufresne said. “I don’t understand why there is something so attractive about Monroe. It may be that it was so strange – people speaking in a different dialect, different music to their language and the long lines of families. Everybody knows everyone else’s stories. I found it fascinating and still do.”

Mr. Dufresne has written about the craft of fiction writing in “The Lie That Tells a Truth,” and he has just finished a book on novel writing. His next novel will be in the “Miami noir” genre, he said. He is developing a character from one of his short stories, a particularly insightful therapist with whom the police consult and lawyers use to pick juries. The therapist is called in on a drug execution case. “I want to take that character and see what happens,” he said.

Southern culture may fascinate Mr. Dufresne, but Worcester and its cast of characters are never far away.

“It’s like an elastic band; you’re right back there,” he said. “Even when I’m writing about Louisiana, I’m writing about Worcester and people in Worcester.”