Analysis of Andre Dubus’s Stories

Among American story writers of the twentieth century, the one to whom Andre Dubus is most often compared is Flannery O’Connor. Although Dubus’s works are not generally marked by the wry, ironic wit that permeates O’Connor’s work, both writers are marked by what Thomas E. Kennedy, among others, has called an “existential Christian” sensibility.

If They Knew Yvonne

An early Dubus story, “If They Knew Yvonne,” first published in The North American Review in 1969 and collected both in Separate Flights and Selected Stories, displays this sensibility clearly. This story traces the development of a teenager, Harry Dugal, growing into manhood and caught between two powerful forces: his emerging sexuality and his need for the absolution and Communion provided by the Roman Catholic Church. Taught by the fathers at the Christian Brothers School to regard masturbation as “self-abuse” and a mortal sin, Harry, as he discovers his own inability to resist the urge to masturbate, goes to confession at every opportunity to confess his sins. Disgusted at his own weakness and at the sexual weakness that he discovers in his family around him, including his parents, whose store of condoms he discovers, and his sister Janet, who gets married while two months pregnant, the young Harry even considers emasculating himself at one point.

At the age of nineteen, however, he has his first sexual encounter with a woman his own age, Yvonne Millet, and discovers a type of sexuality that does not disgust him. When Yvonne implores him, “Love me, Harry, love me,” he begins to perceive that this type of love is not the squalid lust that he had been warned to guard against but something else, something he is not sure the Catholic fathers at his school knew anything about. The story ends shortly after he has drifted apart from Yvonne and goes to confession again. After Harry has confessed his sexual affair, the priest quotes a line from St. John, in which Christ prays, “I do not pray that You take them out of the world but that You keep them from evil,” a quote that delineates the story’s Christian existentialist theme. Harry begins to understand that the higher good depends not on remaining pure and safe from the world but on being a responsible, conscientious member of the world.

In his full-length study, Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction, Thomas Kennedy points out that almost half of Dubus’s first fifty stories deal with violent themes or subjects, but he further points out that violence is only secondary to the central theme, a symptom of the greater condition of “human isolation and disconnection in . . . modern America.” This is not to say that Dubus in any way excuses violence, but rather that understanding how violence grows out of an acceptance of superficial values is an important source for his fiction.

The Pretty Girl

Dubus’s novella “The Pretty Girl,” collected in both The Times Are Never So Bad and Selected Stories, is one of his best extended examinations of this type of violence. One of the two point-of-view characters is Raymond Yarborough, who is presented as a wildly exploding tinderbox of violence. When the reader meets him, he is divorced from the other main character, Polly Comeau, but still obsessed by her. The reader learns early that Raymond has already raped her, though he considers that he was only “taking back my wife for a while.” Before long, he beats up and severely injures a man whom he knows she has slept with and lights a fire around the house where Polly is staying, not to destroy anything but to terrorize her.

If Raymond is in many ways the antagonist in the story, he is also the most interesting character, and his former wife Polly is not presented in particularly sympathetic terms. A waitress by trade, Polly is in many ways best described in the terms of the story’s title as a twenty-six-year-old “pretty girl” who has used her beauty to avoid fashioning an adult identity and instead has tended to drift from one sexual affair to another, even during the course of her marriage, without much sense of responsibility or consequences.

Polly is a loner almost as much as Raymond is. She shares a house with a male acquaintance but has no close friends either male or female. Her relationships with women tend to be competitive, and her friendships with men tend to be brief, quickly sacrificed to her love affairs. She is significantly alone when Raymond breaks into her house at the end of the story to confront her about why she left him and what she really wants. Though he is unarmed, Polly, who has been ill and alone for several days, uses a gun she bought for protection to kill him when he begins to take off his clothes. Both main characters are carefully constructed to be unlikable, though only Raymond is presented as truly repugnant. The success of the story is that it compels the reader nevertheless to want to understand each of them and to appreciate each character’s struggle, while not inviting the reader to forget or overlook their immature self-obsession or moral rootlessness.

Finding a Girl in America

A number of Dubus’s stories deal with recurring characters. Two stories of the three that deal with Hank Allison, a middle-aged, philandering college professor, show Dubus’s art at both its best and its worst. “Finding a Girl in America” shows both the character Hank Allison and the writer Andre Dubus at their worst. In it, Hank is presented as a divorced college professor who has been having affairs with his female students. As the story opens, he has learned that a former lover had an abortion and feels cheated because he believes that had the baby been born, it would have filled the void left in his life by his daughter growing up; the point of view of the woman who would have had a baby she did not want fathered by a man she did not love is not seriously considered. The attention to detail, which in other stories creates a convincing illusion of reality, in this story seems tedious and self-indulgent. Dubus’s insistence on finding moral frameworks to understand his characters, a tendency that in many stories uplifts his art, in this story misleads him. Hank’s life is so self-indulgent that it is hard for a reader to take him half as seriously as he takes himself.

Adultery

The earlier story, “Adultery,” is by contrast one of the finest examples of Dubus’s art. To be sure, Hank Allison is the same self-centered, self-justifying man that the reader meets in the later story (as well as in “We Don’t Live Here Anymore”). “Adultery,” however, is carefully constructed to consider not only marital fidelity but also spiritual fidelity.

The main characters are Hank Allison, his wife Edith, and Father Joe Ritchie, a Catholic priest dying of cancer who renounces his vows and has an affair with Edith. The story also investigates the lives of a number of other men and women whom Hank and Edith choose as lovers. It is Hank who initially brings adultery into his and Edith’s marriage, but when she discovers it, he immediately consents to her right to have extramarital affairs as well. The affairs they both have take their toll especially on Edith and make a sham of their marriage. The irony of the title—and the element that raises this story to the finest level of American fiction—is that Edith’s adultery with a dying Catholic priest is not viewed by her or Father Ritchie as true adultery; the true adultery for her is staying in a marriage based on hypocrisy. Similarly, although this affair compromises Joe Ritchie in more ways than one, he and Edith both understand that their relationship is spiritually as well as personally the right thing to do; what worries Joe Ritchie most is that Edith might remain married to Hank, and he is relieved when she comes to him while he is dying to say that she is divorcing Hank. By deciding to divorce Hank, Edith upholds at least the idea of marital fidelity. Moreover, she realizes that her affair with Joe Ritchie has provided her with a new center for her life and that she would be unfaithful to herself and the belief in marriage to remain with Hank any longer.

A Father’s Story

“A Father’s Story,” which was chosen by John Updike for the annual The Best American Short Stories in 1984, is in some respects Dubus’s most important story. Smaller in scale than stories such as “The Fat Girl” or “Separate Flights,” which each compress the story of several years into a few pages, “A Father’s Story” focuses on a crucial incident in the life of Luke Ripley and his daughter Jennifer. Like many of Dubus’s characters, Luke seems in many ways to be a version of the author, but in this case, a version that has achieved a deceptive veneer of simplicity. The opening line of the story, “My name is Luke Ripley and here is what I call my life,” seems to present the voice of a direct, straightforward man. The life that Luke tells the reader about is one filled with a variety of contradictions: He is a devout Catholic but divorced; he attends Mass regularly but does not always listen; he enjoys talking to his priest but casually, preferably over a few beers, and what they discuss is mostly small talk; he is a self-described lazy man who dislikes waking up early but does so each morning to pray, not because he feels obligated to do so but because he knows he has the choice not to do so. Luke Ripley is a man who lives with contradictions and accepts them.

As such, when his daughter comes to him, frantically telling him that she hit a man with a car, he reacts almost instinctively. Rather than call the police or an ambulance, he drives to the scene of the accident to verify that the young man is in fact dead. When he knows that there is nothing that can be done to help the young man, he drives home and puts his daughter to bed, then takes her car out and runs it into a tree in front of the church to cover up the dent she had already created. The story ends with Luke recalling to the reader how he justifies himself to his God each morning, saying, “You never had a daughter and, if You had, You could not have borne her passion. . . . I love her more than I love truth.” God replies, “Then you love in weakness,” to which Luke responds, “As You love me.”

The power of “A Father’s Story” is that it captures perfectly the opposites that Dubus’s fiction is constantly exploring. Luke Ripley’s love for his daughter is both his strength and his weakness. Similarly, his love for his daughter moves him to deceive, even as his religion demands confession; and when he finds himself unable to confess his sin of covering up his daughter’s crime, the story itself, it is clear, is his substitute for the confession that he cannot make to a priest. Like many of Dubus’s stories, “A Father’s Story” shows a person caught between the confusing, ambiguous demands of his human heart and the by-no-means-clear demands of a religion in which he believes but which speaks of an absolute he can only partially understand.

Major works
Short fiction: Separate Flights, 1975; Adultery and Other Choices, 1977; Finding
a Girl in America, 1980; The Times Are Never So Bad, 1983; The Last Worthless Evening,
1986; Selected Stories, 1988; Dancing After Hours: Stories, 1996; In the Bedroom: Seven
Stories, 2002.
Novels: The Lieutenant, 1967; Voices from the Moon, 1984;We Don’t Live Here Anymore, 1984.
Nonfiction: Broken Vessels, 1991; Meditations from a Movable Chair: Essays, 1998.

Bibliography
Breslin, John B. “Playing Out of the Patterns of Sin and Grace: The Catholic Imagination of Andre Dubus.” Commonweal 115 (December 2, 1988): 652-656.
Cocchiarale, Michael. “The Complicated Catholicism of Andre Dubus.” In Songs of the New South: Writing Contemporary Louisiana, edited by Suzanne D. Green and Lisa Abney. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Dubus, Andre. “An Interview with Andre Dubus.” Interview by David Yandell Todd. Yale Review 86 (July, 1998): 89-110.
Feeney, Joseph J. “Poised for Fame: Andre Dubus at Fifty.” America 155 (November 15, 1986): 296-299.
Ferriss, Lucy. “Andre Dubus: ‘Never Truly Members.’” In Southern Writers at Century’s End, edited by Jeffery J. Folks and James A. Perkins. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
Ferriss, Lucy. “Andre Dubus: ‘Never Truly Members.’” In Southern Writers at Century’s End, edited by Jeffery J. Folks and James A. Perkins. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
Lesser, Ellen. “True Confession: Andre Dubus Talks Straight.” Review of Selected Stories. Village Voice 37 (January 17, 1989): 56.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Miner, Madone. “Jumping from One Heart to Another: How Andre Dubus Writes About Women.” Critique 39 (Fall, 1997): 18-31.
Rowe, Anne E. “Andre Dubus.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Yarbrough, Steve. “Andre Dubus: From Detached Incident to Compressed Novel.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 28 (Fall, 1986); 19-27.



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , ,

Your feedback helps improve this platform. Leave your comment.

%d bloggers like this: