What Are They Reading?
Vintage. 476 pp. $14.
After I saw In the Bedroom, Todd Field's moving film based on Andre Dubus's short story "Killings," I was delighted when a slim volume of Dubus's stories arrived here at The Nation. (Bonus to working on the books section--review copies everywhere!) Published under the title In the Bedroom, literary paperback publisher Vintage put "Killings" together with six other Dubus stories to give people like me--strangers to Dubus, but admirers of Field's film--a taste of the writer's work. I read the seven stories--filled with love, loss and small-town life, plus revenge, guilt, beauty and some good humor--straight through, again and again.
Finally tired of re-reading, I treated myself to Dubus's Selected Stories, a volume of twenty-three fine short works. My favorite, I think, is "If They Knew Yvonne," a coming-of-age piece narrated by a boy named Harry, who was educated in parochial schools and has developed a troubled, guilt-ridden relationship with sex. (A timeless theme!) Harry describes his teenage school days: "Brother Thomas...focused on what apparently was the most significant [of sins]: he called it self-abuse.... It was unnatural, and if a boy did it he was no better than a monkey." Harry, a good boy, manages to restrain himself until just around his 14th birthday; then the floodgates open. Eventually, there is a girl--Yvonne--and, of course, the promise of actual sex. One night they are in Harry's car, and she says, "Love me, Harry, love me--" "The brothers hadn't prepared me for this," Harry confides. "They were no match for Yvonne." What follows is a story that climbs the high of raging hormones and tumbles with the burnout of first love's flame.
Other highlights: "Adultery" is the story of a young couple who has fallen out of love; the wife is having an affair with a man dying of cancer, which brings her sadness more profound than that delivered by her failing marriage. In "The Pretty Girl," a murderous and jealous man stalks and intimidates his estranged wife by first raping her and later setting fire to the grass around her house. In "The Winter Father," a man separated from his wife transitions to part-time fatherhood, and must learn how to spend time with his children on weekends alone--how to fill up that space and time.
Although Dubus, who died a few years ago, wrote novels too, he claimed later in his career that the short story was his form, and this collection leaves little doubt about that fact. (Note: Dubus also wrote a collection of essays called Broken Vessels as well an exceptional memoir, "Meditations From a Movable Chair," after he lost the use of his legs in a 1986 accident.) Dubus loved his characters; though they are often weak we feel for them; though they are forced to endure trying, difficult marriages and affairs, and though they are robbed of children and saddled with Catholic guilt, each was drawn with a tenderness and intelligence that demands our respect--for the characters themselves, and the man who made them.