If you cannot stand an insect buzzing at your ear while you are trying to sleep, how can you stand the eternal punishment of hell?
There are many stories to admire by this late writer, with one having been turned into a widely acclaimed film. Unlike the majority of screen adaptations, however, suspense is heightened not diminished. That story's title ("Killings") and opening paragraph reveal that one person is dead and at least one other will die by Hammurabic justice; yet the film gives little indication of this horrific turn of events and even boasts a title that is apparently a lobstering term. Should we interpret this as a failing of the author's prose? Dubus's corpus possess certainly qualities that I do not immediately regard as interesting literature: an overreliance on localisms; a preoccupation (to put it mildly) with the Catholic Church's accomplishments and restrictions; and a tendency to slip into the casually banal conversations that distinguish lesser writers. Yet despite these flaws, his sense of detail and tone – perhaps a writer's greatest asset – is remarkable and consistently surprising. Few writers are able nowadays to build a reputation solely on short stories, a curiously dying art considering how truncated our attention spans have become. But Dubus was no ordinary writer, nor, from many reports, an ordinary human being, and the labyrinth of his soul's contours offers a perspective unique among twentieth-century American artists. So if you are still conflicted about the Catholic traditions of your youth, a handful of his tales will set you straight. Or at least color your memories, as in this story of emerging sexuality and deep faith.
Our hero is Harry, a twelve-year-old Louisiana boy attending the Brothers academy like any other good Catholic son. We will get snippets from his life until twenty or so, halfway through college, after the girl we know he will meet and love, and the lessons he will learn from these essential experiences. Yet before we broach the inevitable, we are introduced to Brother Thomas, a man who preaches celibacy by underscoring the tribulations of the Church's greatest thinker and not his own. Which might explain why the following passage makes so much sense:
He [Brother Thomas] had been talking with the excited voice yet wandering eyes of a man repeating by rote what he truly believes. But now his eyes focused on something out the window, as though a new truth had actually appeared to him on the dusty school ground of that hot spring day. One hand rose to scratch his jaw.
What can be deduced from a simian reflex coupled with the oddity of this revelation – if it is indeed a revelation? In less subtle works, or works that pounce on human frailty as if it were the meekest of prey, the priest would be denounced as a fraud and religion exposed as the crutch of the madman and impoverished ignoramus. A peek at the end of our tale does involve a confession by Harry (one of many he makes to his family, friends, and to us) and one by the Father who listens to his every word then admits a violent action of his own that might surprise you. This latter admission actually strengthens the Church's cause, as well as Harry's volition that some decrees might not necessarily have to be swallowed in their entirety. The arc of the story is therefore a simple one. A boy plagued by a fear of sin and, ultimately, a fear of "the awful diaphanous bulk of God" (a beautiful description), turns to his own innermost desires and does not find them sinful. As well he shouldn't. He watches his sister Janet get pregnant at eighteen to a serviceman whom their parents instinctively dislike in the way that children should heed but rarely do ("he was an airman from the SAC base, so she had to argue with Mother for the first week or so"), and infers that women are in command of their sexual urges if for reasons that differ from his. That, he thinks, would explain Yvonne.
When we finally meet Yvonne, our narrator begins to notice details that eluded him before, mostly because he was taught to follow not to notice. They debate the sins of their mounting ecstasies and then "she finished our argument, won it, [and] soaked her small handkerchief in my casuistry"; when she warns him, only implicitly, that they are doomed to fail because they don't know better, he comments that "she was right to look for defeat in that direction"; and when they finally do break up, he is relieved that although "the campus was not a very large one ... it was large enough so you could avoid seeing someone." There is an old chestnut among critics (you will often find it pasted on the back of Dubus's helpless tomes) that the familiarity of the subject matter, a rite of passage for the sexually liberated masses that we call the postwar generations, makes a work all the more charming ("Like the voice of a dear old relative" is one particularly nauseating quip). That is not why we should enjoy these works. We should enjoy them because they take the basic problems of man and convert them into the basic problems of literature, blurring the line that should never have existed in the first place. Dubus does not know where religion and faith stop and where art begins; he sees them all as the product of something greater than himself. So when our tale opens with Harry's epiphany about what he really wants and believes – a phase we tend to refer to as adolescence – and moves quietly to a nondescript ending with his two nephews bagging crabs and wondering about the mortality of these animals they have trapped to eat, we see no lines. We see children behaving cruelly and ignorantly but harmlessly at the same time, innocence as it evolves into morality. And no, the nephews don't know better. But Harry now does.