I started reading these stories over a month ago. I was unable to finish the book all in one shot because I found I needed to stop and reflect in between stories, so moved was I–mostly because Dubus had a way of taking our simple understandings of the world—juxtaposing violence and innocence, faith and the faithless, priests and adulterers, sinners and the redeemed, the dead and the living—and making them complex.
I was bowled over by some of the first stories in the selection, “Killings” and “The Pretty Girl”, which take horrible, violent situations and try to make some sense of them by offering the protagonists the opportunity for revenge. But the satisfaction in that revenge is fleeting for it takes almost as much out of those who have acted out of revenge than the original crime did.
“If They Knew Yvonne” is another story of revenge—except this time it is a young man who at one point seeks to wash away his sin (masturbation) by doing himself physical harm. He does not like that he is weak in his body and seems to believe that his sin taints the rest of his life. That is until a priest sets him straight. In the end, he is left reflecting on his two young nephews and hoping for a better understanding for them.
At his best, I think, is Dubus when he took the POV of a woman or girl. In “Anna” , the protagonist, Anna Griffin age 21, helps her boyfriend, Wayne, to rob a drugstore and is then weighed down by guilt (although she never names it as such—either she is incapable, unaware or avoiding the truth). After the robbery, Anna and Wayne go to their local bar and get drunk—out of a sense of exhilaration and fear. In a poignant moment, Anna walks outside to clear her head and briefly reveals her youth and, perhaps, her sense of hopefulness (which one imagines will never be fully realized)—almost as though she is reborn:
the sudden cold emptied her lungs, then she deeply drew in the air tasting of night and snow. ‘Wow.’ She lifted her face to the light snow and breathed again. Had she smoked a Camel? Yes. From Lou. Jesus. Snow melted on her cheeks. She began to shiver. She crossed the sidewalk, touched the frosted parking meter. One of her brothers did that to her when she was little. Which one? Frank. Told her to lick the bottom of the ice tray. In the cold she stood happy and clear-headed until she wanted to drink, and she went smiling into the warmth and smoke.
With the money they have stolen, Anna and Wayne buy a bunch of things at the mall (instead of filling their fridge). But neither of them can fully enjoy these things as they imagined they would. They are still the same, poor desperate couple but with a vacuum cleaner, television and stereo. It would be easy to project their path as one of disaster, but Anna’s hopefulness in the end leaves the door open for a breakthrough. In the Laundromat, she washes their clothes and seems to cleanse them both of their sins and bring them back to the beginning:
Anna took a small wooden chair from the table and sat watching the round window of the machine, watched her clothes and Wayne’s tossing past it, like children waving from a ferris wheel.
“A Father’s Story” is the last story in the book and the only one I had read previously. It is deserving of its location and an intense and moving story—once again how man can become his own God and thus be forgiven for what he does to protect his children.
Still, the story that left me most breathless was the second to last one, “Adultery.” It is a complex story of a husband—Hank (a writer)—and wife—Edith—who have fallen into an open marriage (the husband sort of springs it on her several years in that he believes in fidelity but not monogamy). For a few years, Edith takes revenge on Hank by taking several lovers, but he is nonplussed and brings his own girlfriends by the house on occasion. It is not until Edith commits adultery with the ex-priest Joe—whose frail body comes to embody their sin—that she is awakened. It is when Joe becomes ill with cancer and has his final point of communion (the night before he is admitted to the hospital for good they have sex one last, fevered time) that Edith realizes what she must do—still it takes a while for her realization to live and it is not until the very end that she speaks it: she will divorce Hank—thus signaling the death of her true love. She sacrifices their marriage to condone for the sins they have all committed.
What is most beautiful about Dubus’ writing is his love of his characters. He seems to not judge them. He seems to see their faults, allow them their failings, ask that they redeem themselves and then offer them forgiveness. He is, then, their God–but not a pure God, not a God without sin himself. A God who can empathize because, in the end, that’s all we really have that makes us human.