(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Among American story writers of the twentieth century, the one to whom Andre Dubus is most often compared is Flannery O’Connor. While 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 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”

His novella-length story, “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, 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...

(The entire section is 1952 words.)