Andre Dubus's best characters

Andre Dubus’s literary superpower is to hit upon that one thing about a character that makes him him, or her her. And in so doing, with subtle, clever details—breadcrumbs on the trail to the nucleus of a character—he makes a reader want to keep going, because she knows exactly who these people are and has to know what happens to them. It’s a feat that fellow short-form heavyweights Chekhov and Carver knew all about. Rather than getting bogged down in the details—hair and eye color, the make of automobiles, the inconsequential cousins and endless backstories—Dubus trains his eye on the here and now. His stories are concise, usually focused on a specific event or chain of events, which drive the plot the way a driver might handle a Maserati: fast and furious, but with a strong sense of dignity and purpose. And always, above all, these stories are steeped in the phenomenon of selfhood—that one thing that makes these characters seem so alive, and so human.

Note: All of these stories are from Dubus’s Selected Stories (1985) except “Dancing After Hours,” which appears in Dancing After Hours (1996).

“Miranda Over the Valley”

The young title character is talked into having an abortion, then falls into a depression. Dubus never comes out and says she’s “depressed”; instead he writes things like, “she touched no one; or, if she did, she wasn’t aware of it; if anyone touched her they touched nothing.” Indeed, Miranda is traumatized: “She could not see blood in movies anymore. She read the reviews, took their warnings, stayed away.” With these measures—the dissociation, the avoidance—Dubus tags Miranda’s one thing and conveys her despair without ever having to come out and label her psychological state outright. Dubus describes her abject distress by homing in on small acts and strange behavior, allowing the reader find catharsis along with Miranda—gently, quietly, and always with a hushed sense of urgency.

“A Father’s Story”

From the first line, this father, Luke, is lying—to himself and to the reader. This is a calculated Dubusian choice. Before the time of the story, Luke helped his daughter cover up a vehicular homicide. Though he considers himself a devout Catholic, he doesn’t confess to his part in the crime. And so, the one thing about Luke is that he loves his daughter more than he loves God, but thinks he just loves her more than he loves truth, and he knows that his love—for his daughter and for his god—is flawed. The principal thing that Luke says he stands for—God—is actually secondary, after family. Or after his daughter; he says he’d have turned his sons in, but not his daughter. So he lives with conflict, breathes it, is riddled by it. He listens to opera, drinks coffee in the morning and beer at night, smokes. He is troubled, though also soothed by the balm of God. Here is a man who finds comfort in religion, yet his deepest imbroglio stems from turning away from God—a private conflict with Dubus’s fingerprints all over it.

“Dancing After Hours”

Drew, a man confined to a wheelchair, tells a story about his divorce. In the era before the Americans with Disabilities Act, he couldn’t get up the steps of the courthouse. He was out on the street and a jackhammer was going and it was raining and his lawyer held an umbrella over him. “Then I was divorced. I looked up at my wife, and asked her if she’d like Chinese lunch and a movie,” Drew tells Emily, a waitress he meets at a bar. “Why?” she says. “I couldn’t let her go,” he says. That is everything we need to know about this fellow. He cannot release himself of routine, of the tenderness of a marriage, even after the last bloom fades. And Emily’s reaction to Drew’s story tells us everything we need to know about her. The prickliness in her “Why?” is counterbalanced by the next thing she does: She takes his hand and says, “Oh, Drew.” Emily is brutally hard on herself and the world around her, but in this moment, she reveals her essence.

“The Pretty Girl”

Ray is an obsessive man who cannot let go of his ex-wife, Polly. He’s delusional. Dubus signals his break with reality entirely through scene and inner narrative. Ray says, “I get along with people, and they don’t treat me the way they treat some; in this world it helps to be big.” He doesn’t really get along with people. He forces people to get along with him. He is capable of deviant behavior and evil in ways that a more self-aware character isn’t. It’s not clear at first how far Ray will go. Dubus paves the way with carefully dropped details of Ray’s psyche. As the narrative unfolds, we see just how apt these deceptively minute Dubusian revelations are. They run deep and turn deadly. When Ray shows up drunk at Polly’s house and strips down naked, we may not be surprised, exactly, but we are certainly horrified.

“If They Knew Yvonne”

In this delicate coming-of-age story, a man looks back at his teenage years and absolves himself, normalizing awful self- and church-imposed feelings of perversion and otherness. The last paragraph finds him watching his sister’s sons playing at the beach: “I looked at the boys lying on their bellies and reaching down for another crab, and I hoped they would grow well, those strong little bodies, those kind hearts.” It’s a tender story—a reminiscence of the confusing sexuality of this boy’s teen years, and an honest look at what it was like for him to come of age in the Catholic Church. Harry is hard on himself for many years. Older, and with some perspective, he can see that his sexual exploits as a boy and young man were perhaps extreme, but ultimately little more than experimentation and discovery. He begins to accept things that have for so long seemed shameful. This view of the world that Harry comes away with is soft, understanding. It says, Growing up is hard. It says, I hope it’s easier for you than it was for me. Most of all, it says, It’s okay. Harry says this to himself and his nephews without saying anything concrete, but these little details, the one and two and three definitive things about Harry, clearly delineate who he is. Harry’s one thing is not that he was a perverted teenager. It’s that he is a man who has finally arranged all aspects of himself—his desires, thoughts, and actions, inner and outer lives—into a cohesive whole, and now sees himself as human, no longer sinful and full of vice.

Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in The Rumpus and Bomb.