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The Story on Thursdays: In the Bedroom by Andre Dubus (With a Movie Tie-In)

October 26, 2010

Note: If you plan to watch the movie In the Bedroom, without reading the short story upon which it was based, you might want to skip this post. It contains something that might be a spoiler for the movie.

The Story on Thursdays is hosted by Bibliophiliac.

Introduction

In the Bedroom is a collection of short stories by Andre Dubus. Sarah and I read “The Killings” and watched the movie adaptation of that short story, titled In the Bedroom, as part of our ongoing study of short stories and cinema. By then, I was hooked, and I read the rest of the short stories in the collection. Wow! I’ll discuss the entire collection and the movie later in this post.

In “The Killings” (excerpt here) a young man is murdered. This is not a spoiler, because we’re told this in the first line of the story. His father focuses on revenge, which doesn’t give him the closure — or the release from his anger — that he’d hoped for. It’s a dark, disturbing story that offers no redemption and no easy answers. Sarah called it an “anti-redemption” story.

Andre Dubus

Dubus (pronounced so it rhymes with “excuse”) is a fascinating author. Violence and tragedy, particularly gun-related violence, are tremendously important themes in his work. His sister was raped when she was young. This triggered years of terror over his loved ones’ safety.

Dubus carried guns to protect himself and those around him, until one night, in the late 1980s, he almost shot a man in a drunken argument outside a bar. In his New Yorker essay “Giving up the Gun,” he describes that night as a turning point — after that, he wisely decided to stop arming himself.

Dubus spent six years in the Marine Corps, achieving the rank of captain, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing.

In 1986, he was seriously injured in a car accident. He stopped to help two injured people, Luis and Luz Santiago. As he helped Luz to the side of the highway, an oncoming car swerved and hit them. Luis was killed instantly, and Luz survived because Dubus pushed her out of the way. Dubus was critically injured, and later had his left leg amputated above the knee. He used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He struggled with constant pain and debilitating depression. And his third wife left him, taking their two young daughters. However, his experiences with his disability led to his becoming a more prolific writer, as well as a successful professor and lecturer, and it deepened his religious faith.

He died of a heart attack in 1999.

(Sources: Wikipedia article; Spiritus Temporis article)

The In the Bedroom Collection

In Dubus’s biography, one finds many of the themes reflected in the stories in In the Bedroom: relationships, love, fatherhood, divorce, religion — specifically Catholicism — guilt, and the unsatisfied yearning for redemption.

Most of these stories are primarily character-driven. Plots seem to rise casually from the character descriptions; it’s a bit like a story overheard in a bar. At times, the reader is lulled by the gently unfolding character development, then slammed into a brick wall when a shocking event occurs.

Dubus writes in a unique style, with long, rambling run-on sentences which would have me pulling my hair out if I found them in my students’ work. 🙂 However, this style fits his stories, which have a strong introspective quality. It’s not stream of consciousness — it’s often not even written in first person — but it’s something close. And I soon adapted to his style and grew to love it.

The thing I like best about his work was the way he creates characters who are deeply flawed, yet worthy of compassion and respect. The two stories I found the most compelling, “Rose” and “A Father’s Story,” were agonizing for the same reason they were powerful. I saw the main characters doing, or not doing, things that were horrifying and unthinkable, yet at the moment, I completely understood why they acted as they did. Dubus’s probing but compassionate eye for his characters and his honest exploration of love, sexuality, and spirituality are, above all, what make these works unforgettable for me.

He also used imagery skillfully. With a few expertly crafted lines, he could clearly conjure a landscape or connect you to the rhythms of nature. And glimpses of nature, particularly the ocean, often appear in metaphors. There were many times when I stumbled on a gorgeous passage that I wanted to tuck away, like a jewel, to admire later.

More About the Stories

“Killings” — As I mentioned, this story is about a bereaved father’s quest for revenge. God, this is a heart-wrenching story, and you scarcely even know the characters, nor do you see the bloodshed. Grief and revenge are powerful themes. Dubus’s exploration of grief, along with his reflections on marriage and fatherhood, are what I loved best about the story, and they are among the things he does best.

It seemed to Matt … that he had not so much moved through his life as wandered through it, his spirit like a dazed body bumping into furniture and corners. He had always been a fearful father: when his children were young, at the start of each summer he thought of them drowning in a pond or the sea, and he was relieved when he came home in the evenings and they were there; usually that relief was his only acknowledgment of his fear, which he never spoke of, and which he controlled within his heart … and then he lost Frank the way no father expected to lose his son, and he felt that all the fears he had borne while they were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him on the beach and swept him out to sea.  (p. 11)

“The Winter Father”

The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days, they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying. (p. 24))

This begins a story of a newly divorced father of two young children, who struggles to adapt to his changed role in the kids’ lives. He feels the divorce has “pierced and cut” his time with the kids, and he finds any moments of silence between him and his children painful, so he fills their time with entertainment: movies, museums, and aquariums. As a newly single man, he also comes to a new understanding of his sexual and emotional needs. This story explores parenthood, intimacy, loneliness, and regret. It also touches lightly, but powerfully, on the theme of guilt, an inevitable emotion at the end of a marriage.

Crossing the sidewalk to his car, in that short space, he felt the limp again, the stooped shoulders. He wondered if he looked like a man who had survived an accident which had killed others. (p. 26)

One of Dubus’s gifts is to avoid the temptation to give his characters a Road to Damascus-like moment of revelation or an easy solution to their problems, yet he does show them some kindness and compassion. “The Winter Father” offers no moment of resolution and closure, but it does allow the father to gradually begin growing toward a sort of peace.

“Rose” — This story begins with a 51-year-old man ruminating as he frequents a neighborhood bar. We come to know the narrator, an intelligent, articulate ex-military man, then we realize he has come to us primarily as a storyteller. He guides us into a story told to him in the bar by Rose, a worn down working class woman with a broken spirit.

And in Rose’s eyes, I saw embers of death, as if the dying of her spirit had come not with a final yielding sigh, but with a blaze of recognition. (p. 61)

I will leave you to discover Rose’s tragic story for yourself. It’s a tale of how a woman loses her power and even her awareness of her own love, but it’s also about how people, including Rose, discover hidden reservoirs of strength at critical moments that they never knew they had. The narrator sees her with respect and compassion, even though she can’t see herself in this light. It’s also a story that explores the intersection between religious belief and real life, and the search for meaning or lack of it, important themes in Dubus’s work.

Devout Catholics, she told me. By that, she did not mean they strived to live in imitation of Christ. She meant they did not practice artificial birth control, but rhythm, and after their third year of marriage they had three children. They left the church then … I am not a Catholic but even I see they were never truly members of that faith, and so could not have left it. There is too much history, too much philosophy involved, for the matter of faith to rest finally and solely on the use of contraceptives … They had neither a religion nor a philosophy; like most people I know, their philosophies were simply their accumulated reactions to their daily circumstance, their lives as they lived them from one hour to the next. They were not driven, guided by either passionate belief or strong resolve. And for that I pity them both, as I pity the others who move through life like scraps of paper in the wind.  (pp. 64-65)

“The Fat Girl” — A slightly obese young woman’s sense of identity, and her expectations of her life, evolve as she loses and gains weight.

“Delivering” — A pre-teen boy goes through daily routines with his younger brother, occasionally showing a bit of cruelty, after the violent break-up of his parents’ marriage.

“A Father’s Story” — This is a tale of love, guilt, and forgiveness, and it’s also a story about finding meaning in quotidian life.  A divorced father is driven to make a difficult choice to protect his adult daughter. I will leave you to discover it for yourself. I will just add that it delves heavily into religion and spirituality, and I enjoyed the Catholic narrator’s perspective on religion, which combines a love of ecclesiastical rituals with a rejection of the material trappings of organized religion.

For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love. (p. 119)

Certainly the ushers who pass the baskets know me as a miser. Father Paul … could say Mass in my barn. I know this is stubborn, but I can find no mention by Christ of maintaining buildings, much less erecting them of stone or brick, and decorating them with pieces of metal and mineral and elements that people still fight over like barbarians. (pp. 114-115)

“All the Time in the World” — A young woman searches for an adult relationship and discovers both the joys and limitations of a culture revolving around casual sex.

The Cinematic Connection

This is the first full-length film Todd Field directed, and it is a good one, though not for the faint of heart. In this adaptation of “Killings,” which is a very short piece, the original story and characters are changed and expanded to fit a feature length movie. And the focus of the story changes from being about a father’s choices and internal struggle to being about the relationship between him and his wife. As Roger Ebert said, in his 4-star review:

The film unfolds its true story, which is about the marriage of Matt and Ruth–about how hurt and sadness turn to anger and blame. There are scenes as true as movies can make them, and even when the story develops thriller elements, they are redeemed, because the movie isn’t about what happens, but about why.

This movie shines, partly due to great performances by Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, and Marisa Tomei. Have I mentioned that Tom Wilkinson is one of my favorite actors in the world?

This isn’t the kind of fast paced movie you’d expect from Hollywood. It movies slowly through vibrant images, that give you hints as to what lies beneath the surface, and it reveals the characters in quiet, everyday moments. This is true to the introspective, character driven quality of Dubus’s stories and his deft use of imagery, which I described above. On the other hand, it is a violent, disturbing movie, though not gratuitously so, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat!

Read a full review of the movie here.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2010 6:16 am

    Thank you.

    Yesterday I enjoyed reading about A J Cronin who wrote The Stars Look Down and was responsible for the character Dr Finlay who has been in so many British TV series.

    It would be interesting to talk about the differences between melodrama and tragedy in In the bedroom and the short story on which it is based.

    Style fitting the story, hmm?

  2. October 19, 2010 1:09 am

    Wow! Stephanie, I’m so glad you have discovered Dubus–he is one of my favorite short story writers. Great feature! I’m glad someone is jumping on board with The Story on Thursday–next time let me know and I will publish a link!

    • October 19, 2010 1:19 am

      Thanks! I was wondering whether anyone else was participating in this feature. I’ve recently started reading short stories for the first time in a LONG time, and I’d love to see what others are reading. I’m definitely going to try to make this a weekly thing.

  3. November 1, 2010 10:08 am

    I never realized that Mr. Dubus led such a tragedy-filled life (although it wasn’t his choice, so maybe ‘led’ is not the right word for it). Thank you for featuring him and the movie here which even though I didn’t plan on watching, I think I will now.

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