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A Harsh, Swift Clarity

When writer Carol Muske-Dukes' husband, actor David Dukes, diedsuddenly, the reality of it hit her with a force she'd never imagined.

July 31, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Poets and English professors hate cliches. They prefer the more precise, profound language of great writers who illuminate in some new way the oldest emotions on earth. Like love and grief.

Carol Muske-Dukes is both a poet and a professor. She heads the new doctoral program in literature and creative writing at USC, has published six books of poetry and three novels and finds pleasure in quoting, from memory, big chunks of Shakespeare, Rilke or Keats to punctuate her thoughts. Just the other day, in a conversation at her home, she reeled off Shakespeare's 16th sonnet in its entirety to help explain the nature of love and loss as she knew it until Oct. 9, 2000.

On that date, she says, all she thought she knew about love and death--"which are the poets' subject, for God's sake"--proved inadequate. On that day, her husband died.

The actor David Dukes was tall, lean, healthy, vital--in the prime of his career (and their relationship) at 55. When she kissed him goodbye at their Hancock Park house that morning, she thought he'd be home in two days.

Dukes flew to Lakeview, Wash., to film a TV show. He went to play tennis when he arrived. And he died on the court.

In real life, Muske-Dukes then discovered, cliches can be accurate. Truth is stranger than fiction. Art imitates life, sometimes predicts it. And grief?

"I had written many poems about it, had just finished a whole novel about it, for heaven's sake." But she didn't know it at all, she says. "Now I get it in a way I couldn't have before."

To pile bizarre upon tragic, it soon dawned upon Muske-Dukes that events she had conjured in her new novel were eerily similar to what had actually occurred.

"Life After Death," just out from Random House, is about the fate of a young couple when the husband dies unexpectedly in a tennis game. The bulk of the novel concerns the dialogue that continues between two lovers even after one of them dies. It is an emotional tale: part mystery, part meditation on grief, recovery and relationships. And, to make matters even more confusing for its author, her husband had read and discussed with her every aspect of the book over the five years it took her to write it.

It is an unthinkable scenario--that an author would actually create a fictional death and then have such a similar death occur in real life. And that the real-life victim should have participated, to some small degree, in the creation.

Muske-Dukes called Random House and asked them not to publish the book: It would be just too painful, she said. Then she reversed course:

"The book is fiction, the characters are imagined; the people depicted are in no way similar to, or connected to anyone who exists in real life," she said. "It would be absurd not to publish purely because of a single, although traumatic coincidence."

Besides all that, she said, sitting in the large Hancock Park home that is filled with mementos of her husband's distinguished acting career, "there are lessons to be learned from David's death. And if even one person can be helped by my discussing it, then I want to do it."

Again, she's conflicted. The brow furrows, the already intense voice sinks to a lower, more gravelly pitch. She's starting a book promotion tour, she says. She doesn't want the book pushed aside for shallow, sensationalized chatter on the nature of Dukes' death. On the other hand--her voice softens--her husband had read every draft. It was the last work they would share. By virtue of its timing, his death has somehow become a part of the book's birth.

"All right, let's talk about it," she says.

It is 10 months since the tragedy. She is devastated in a way she could not imagine when she wrote her novel about a woman bereaved. If she were writing it now, she would change certain things, she says. The heroine would not recover in quite the same way. "I had a kind of Keatsian take on death--you know his famous line: 'I'm half in love with easeful death ... "' Such poets' views are meaningless in the face of the real thing, she says. "Suddenly, the person who has defined your galaxy is gone. The solar system shifts. You are no longer in the same place vis-a-vis the sun. Your compass no longer points north. It is spinning."

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