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.