Study Guide

Killings

by Andre Dubus

Killings Summary

Introduction

"Killings" by Andre Dubus was first published in The Sewanee Review in 1979. The short story was adapted into a critically acclaimed film titled In the Bedroom in 2001, directed by Todd Field.

"Killings" is set in a blue-collar town in Massachusetts. The story explores the psychology and emotions of a couple after their son, Frank, is murdered. Dubus treats the dark antagonist and murderer, Richard Strout, with small notes of empathy. Dubus provides horrifying detail during the revenge kidnapping of Strout as Matt, Frank's father, walks through the strange and tidy apartment. As a master of the short story craft, Dubus presents this scene with startling incongruity. How does a man who lives in this tidy manner commit such a brutal murder? Dubus brings Strout to a level that is startling: he is an ordinary man who commits an evil act. Who else in the story is capable of such brutality?

Critics note that Dubus’ style is concise, refined, and straight from the heart. Ann Beattie admires Dubus for his attention to female characters—and Dubus delivers a complex character in Ruth, Matt’s wife. The interactions between Ruth and Matt are often surprising. The situations engulf them and become larger than who they are.

Critics note that Dubus does not simply write about family: he writes well about the point of view within an individual family. He is inside the family. The voices of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives offer multiple perspectives in the action—and they inevitably get entangled. Dubus told The Yale Review that his job was to form the words on the page as his characters performed their acts. In "Killings," the actions are an affront to the reader and the words only serve to humanize their tragic choices and lives.

Killings Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In August, Matt and Ruth Fowler buried their twenty-one-year-old son, Frank, who had been murdered. The next month, Matt tells his friend Willis how distressed he is that his wife, Ruth, keeps running into Richard, the man who killed their son and is out on bail until the trial. Willis, who owns a restaurant, says that Richard has come there with a date and tends bar in a nearby town. Matt admits that he has started carrying a gun, hoping that Richard will do something that gives him an excuse to shoot him. Ruth knows about the gun and does not believe that he keeps it at his store because of crime in the area.

Richard, a spoiled, bad-tempered man, had married young and had two children. Frank, home from college for the summer, met and began dating Mary Ann Strout a month after she and Richard had separated. Shortly after Frank and Mary Ann had begun dating, Richard came to Mary Ann’s house and assaulted Frank. Ruth already disapproved of her son dating an older woman with children, and her concerns were deepened by rumors that Mary Ann had been unfaithful to her husband. After the assault, Ruth became even more concerned that Frank was too involved with Mary Ann.

Matt enjoyed seeing Mary Ann with Frank, admiring her beauty and the couple’s youth and passion. However, he knew that his son was planning to start graduate school in the fall and doubted that Frank was serious about Mary Ann. One night, when Frank was having dinner with Mary Ann and her sons, Richard came to the house and shot Frank in the face and chest.

After a lifetime of being protective of his three children, Matt’s grief at his son’s murder overwhelms him, and his anger that Richard walks through town where Ruth can see him becomes unbearable. One night, Matt and Willis wait outside the bar where Richard...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Killings Extended Summary

"Killings" begins with a funeral. Matt Fowler and his wife Ruth are burying their youngest son, Frank, who died at age twenty-one. Steve and Cathleen, the Fowler’s two other children, are also at the funeral. Frank was shot in the head by Richard Strout. He is the soon-to-be ex-husband of Frank’s girlfriend, Mary Ann Strout.

Richard Strout is twenty-six years old and has won a football scholarship to the University of Massachusetts. He is a frustrated young man who quit college (before he was expelled) and missed an opportunity to lead the family business. He is now a bartender. He married Mary Ann and they had two children after six years of marriage. Richard is known for his hot temper.

Matt and Ruth are tormented when they see Richard in town. He is out on bail and his freedom is incongruous with his vicious crime and their unbearable loss. Matt and his wife discuss where they have seen him around town. Ruth saw him when she visited the Sunnyhurst, a store in town. There is also talk that Richard has a new girlfriend.

Matt also ruminates with his old friend, Willis. Following Frank’s death, Ruth encourages Matt to go and spend some time with his friends who are playing poker. When Matt walks through Willis’s house, he reviews what has been shattered by Frank’s murder: the “quietly harried and quietly pleasurable days of fatherhood.” The implication is that Strout has taken away what Matt accumulated in his adulthood as a parent.

Willis also shares his hatred for Richard as he sees him as a patron of the restaurant he owns in town. The conversation shifts in a dark direction. Willis and Matt share details about other murders in the area in which the suspects often get off free without serving any time. The two men share a collective frustration that is growing. Matt tells Willis that he carries a .38 with him at all times.

Frank's relationship with Mary Ann had been troubled and tensions had been escalating. When Frank was still living at home with his parents, he started dating Mary Ann. He was a graduate student in economics and worked as a lifeguard at the beach, which is where he met her. He spent time at her home with her two sons. One night Frank came home with stitches over his right eye and swollen lips. Richard beat him up. This encounter stirred the emotions of both Ruth and Matt. They wondered whether Frank should be in a relationship with a woman who was older and had two young children. More importantly, they wondered if Frank should be with Mary Ann while she was in the process of a divorce. At one point, Ruth learns that this marriage had gone bad because both had played around, which raised the question of whether Mary Ann was good enough for Frank. Prior to his murder, Matt talked with Frank about his plans and any intentions he may have with Mary Ann. Matt offered a few cautions about the relationship. Through this courtship, and despite the nagging questions, Ruth and Matt supported the relationship. They liked Mary Ann and hoped for the best.

Richard shot Frank at the front door of Mary Ann’s home. Their sons were present. Frank was shot in the chest and also in the face. Matt recalls learning the news from Mary Ann, which prompts a review of all of his fears for his children throughout parenthood. Dubus offers a detailed perspective of the inner thoughts of parents as they navigate the livelihood of their children: Matt’s fears ranged from the fears of keeping the simply alive when they were small, through the physical fears of watching them fall from a tree and preventing any falls through the ice rink. Matt’s fears had run consistently through their teenage years when he feared for any long drives they might make in a car. With Frank’s unexpected and violent death, Matt could not offer any...

(The entire section is 1551 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear