“I became so sympathetic to the sounds of pain from the female soul that I went through androgynous periods,” Dubus wrote in ’77. That ability to exist in a character’s head — in their sex — shows. It shows in Edith, from the novellas Adultery and We Don’t Live Here Anymore (which together were the basis of a decent film with Peter Krause, Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, and Naomi Watts), who tends to her dying lover while her husband cheats with his best pal’s wife. It shows in the story “Miranda Over the Valley,” when the young title character discovers she’s pregnant. And it shows in Finding a Girl in America, when 19-year-old Lori tells her older lover that her friend, the man’s prior love, aborted what would’ve been his child.
Infidelity abounds in Dubus’s work. Doubt in the ability of men and women to sustain lives together suffuses his stories. The tenor of his writing resembles the crushing realism of Richard Yates, a teacher of Dubus’s at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. (The two often shared drinks at the Crossroads, a bar and restaurant at the corner of Mass Ave and Beacon Street.) But unlike Yates — who was equally admired as short story writer and novelist — Dubus stuck with shorter forms: “I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live,” he wrote in 1977. The disintegration of love gets frequent treatment, sometimes slow, sometimes abrupt and violent, always sad. Dubus himself was married three times. But despite all the women and his affinity for them (inside his stories and out), his writing is not feminine. There’s a muscle to it, a physicality, and a need, spoken or not, presents itself: to be a provider, to be a protector.
Because the violence that his characters perpetrate against each other is not just emotional. Dubus carried a gun with him for many years for “the protection I believed they gave people I loved, and strangers whose peril I might witness, and me,” he wrote in the essay “Giving Up the Gun.” He had good reasons to be armed. His older sister had been raped at knifepoint. And he did witness strangers in peril: he watched a young man smash a 15-year-old girl’s head against a wall because she had spilled soda on his car. He didn’t have the gun on him then, but pulled an axe handle from the trunk of his car, “one that I would use only to prevent or try and stop local violence,” and threatened the boy away from her. He pulled the gun once, in Alabama, at a white man approaching a black man with a knife, but did not need to shoot.
In his stories, though, the violence occurs between intimates. In “Killings,” a story of jealousy and revenge (made into the Oscar-nominated film In the Bedroom), a young man is murdered by his girlfriend’s ex-husband. In the novella The Pretty Girl, one of Dubus’s most powerful, exhausting works, a man rapes and terrorizes his ex-wife. The story’s power rests within Dubus’s ability to allow the reader not to like the main character — for what he does is odious — or even pity him, but to understand him. We can hate what he does, but we cannot hate him; he is flawed, cruel, but human. It is this ability, perhaps even more than his gift with women, that is Dubus’s genius, his truest gift.