Why We Like These Stories: A Personal Essay on Andre Dubus

This blog post is part of the ‘Why We Like These Stories’ series: a series of personal essays from the staff of Boydell and Brewer and University of Rochester Press on their favourite short stories and why they like them to celebrate Short Story Month. For the full list of essays, click here.

Many years ago I worked for a company that distributed the books of publisher David R Godine in Europe, among them four volumes (at that time) of short stories of Andre Dubus. I borrowed our sample copies to take with me on holiday to Italy. My then future wife asked what I was reading and I showed her a story called “Adultery”. What depressing books you read, she said.

Dubus’ stories are only depressing if you see everyday life that way: here are ordinary people confronting ordinary problems or being derailed from their daily routine by some catastrophe – the death of a son, a fatal traffic accident, the discovery of an infidelity. What I found so moving about Dubus was how compassionately he examined his characters’ reactions to the cards life dealt them: they made all the difficult choices, struggled with the same contradictions, as you or I would experience in a similar situation. Their humanity is in their all-too-human flaws.

Take “Killings” for example, a story that was made into a film starring Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, retitled In the Bedroom. Set in a blue-collar town in Massachusetts, the story opens with Matt and Ruth Fowler’s grief over the death of their son, Frank, who had been dating Mary Ann Strout shortly after her separation from husband Richard. One day Richard shoots and kills Frank but, due to his family’s wealth and connections, is allowed out on bail.

Ruth sees Richard walking around the town and is plunged further into grief by the thought of their son’s murderer continuing to enjoy life. One night, Matt and his poker buddy Willis kidnap Richard and, under the guise of making it look like the killer has jumped bail, drive him to a secluded spot and shoot him. After burying the body, Matt returns home where Ruth seems to guess what has happened. The implication is that guilt (Dubus was a Catholic, by the way) will forever blight his life and future relationship with his wife. Allowing his anger and grief to overwhelm his morality has produced ‘a sob that he kept silent in his heart.’

Matt must fight seeing Richard as anything other than a heartless killer if he is to go through with the plan. As he forces Richard at gunpoint to pack some clothes in a suitcase, the older man is surprised at the neat and orderly apartment in which the killer lives, with photographs of his estranged wife and children on the walls. How does a man who lives like this commit such a brutal murder? Yet we ask the same question of Matt: how can a family man who runs a store cold-bloodedly plan an execution? The situation is further complicated by Matt’s motive – not so much revenge for his son’s death as protecting his wife from further grief. Matt’s realization that by killing Richard he has committed a sin and become as despicable as his son’s killer ensures that he will no longer find peace.

Novelist Richard Russo considers “A Father’s Story” – chosen by Elliot Ackerman for Why I Like This Story – as ‘one of the finest stories written by an American’. In a 2018 piece for The New Yorker, he explains:

I was in my twenties and not yet a father the first time I read the story, and, at the end, when Luke makes his peace with the God he believes he’s disappointed, I wept. Thirty-odd years later—just three weeks ago—I reread it and wept again, for the author I’d once loved and now loved again, for his son and my friend, and for my own father, who was absent during my young life much as [Dubus’ son, also called Andre]’s was.

Equally, having lived thirty years of life – with all its joys, disappointments, tragedies, achievements and compromises – since I first read them on a sunny day next to the Mediterranean, I love the stories of Andre Dubus, his characters and their human frailties, even more. I thank Why I Like This Story for reacquainting me with one of America’s master storytellers.

Affection for a short story is often closely related to how and when you first encounter it, and the great ones stay with you long after that initial reading. The contributors to Why I Like This Story, all excellent fiction writers in their own right, reveal their close encounters with and intimate insights into their favourite American short stories.

Read all 48 beautifully crafted personal essays in this superb collection. Get Why I Like This Story for 40% off during our Short Story Month Sale. Use promo code BB741 at check out through May 31st.

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