Tim Gautreaux:
Grace in Ordinary Places

Down in Hammond, Louisiana, Tim Gautreaux is writing stories.

Here’s why you should read them.

In his collections Same Place, Same Things and Welding With Children (as well as in his novel, The Next Step in the Dance), Gautreaux, a professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, offers tales of ordinary people doing some ordinary things. They are welders and farmers, priests and bank tellers. They go out on shrimp boats, they fix engines and more often than not, they go to Mass. They shop. At a talk last fall, Gautreux said that in his role as a writing teacher, he always devotes one class to a trip to Wal-Mart, since, as he said, it is a marvelous source for stories.

To discuss Gautreux’s strengths are to repeat the qualities of any good writer: an attention to detail of character and environment, tightly controlled prose and plotting, and a sense that the characters have a life beyond the page, that they are beings with freedom, rather than victims of authorial whim.

But there’s more, and that’s why I’m writing about Gautreux in this space. In an interview last fall at a conference sponsored by Image Journal of the Arts and Religion, Gautreux said that “No story is interesting unless it deals with matters of values.” Or else, he added, you end up with nothing but a slew of New Yorker stories, all nihilism and meaningless pauses.

Writing about meaning and values doesn’t mean preaching, of course. It means looking at the world in a certain context and telling us stories about it. Gautreux’s context is particularly focused on issues of commitment and responsibility.

His stories concern people who’ve messed up, usually because they’ve shirked on their obligations to the children they’ve borne, the spouses they’ve wed, as well as their own best selves. Many of these, by the way, are parents. Gautreux’s stories are filled with grandparents saddled with the raising of their errant children’s children, picking up pieces and cleaning up messes.

But just as Original Sin isn’t the end of the human story, Gautreux’s stories don’t leave us hanging in a New Yorker state of nihilistic ennui. In Tim Gautreux’s world, every character lives and breathes in air as thick with hope as it is with humidity and swampy mildew.

It’s a hope that’s always there for the taking, once the character opens his eyes enough to see it, and its source is simple: sacrifice and the gift of self.

In “Resistance,” an elderly widower observes the quiet pain of a young neighbor girl living with an alcoholic father and ineffectual mother. The child has a science project due, but no one will help her. Risking (and eventually receiving) her father’s rage, the old man steps in to work with her.

“The Bug Man” moves from house to house, exterminating pests, and is inspired to encourage two of his customers to meet each other. When the relationship takes an unexpected, seemingly tragic turn, the exterminator’s offer of help is rebuffed and he loses a customer, to boot. The question remains, though, until the very end of the story, if his offer was truly in vain.

“Good for the Soul,” is an intricately plotted work about a priest who drives to a sick call on a night when he’s had one brandy too many. Father Ledet has questions to answer for from all sides: the parishoner he’d gone to anoint, the woman (also a parishioner) he collides with on the way, the police, and of course himself. The story, full of pain, humor and grace, asks us to consider the painful gift we give when we take up another’s burden.

It’s hard to summarize these fine, earthy, honest and often quite humorous stories fairly, for so much of their power derives from plotting, and we wouldn’t want to spoil the reading experience by revealing too much. Just know that Tim Gautreux’s characters are just like the rest of us: they mess up, but then God, working through the solid stuff of life, presents them with moments in which the possibility for something better is revealed. And even though we know it’s going to hurt to say yes, the sorry consequences of our past mistakes, echoing deep behind the raucous serenade of tree frogs on lonely nights, remind us that it’s got to be better than saying no.

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