THESE ARE powerful, naturalistic stories, utterly convincing. The best depict people we would be unlikely to meet or listen to for very long. The title character in "Anna," for instance, is the wife of the man who makes hamburgers at a Wendy's and herself a cashier at a nearby convenience store. Raymond, in "The Pretty Girl," is a thoroughgoing redneck brute. Leslie, in "Leslie in California," is a once-happy, dreamstarved, battered wife.
Dubus is able to tell us everything we need to know about the lives of these people with just a little detail. Anna's breakfast, for example: "She started the day with three aspirins and a Coke. Then she smoked and ate doughnuts and drank coffee." Or the way she must deal with her husband's Wendy's uniform: "She kept the shirt clean, some nights washing it in the sink when he came home and hanging it on a chair back near the radiator so he could wear it the next day; he would not buy another one because, he said, he hated spending money on something he didn't want." Even after her husband robs a drugstore, Anna's life doesn't get any easier. The $2,008 haul is spent on a television, a stereo and records, and--for Anna--a vacuum cleaner.
But Leslie's lot is much worse. She contrasts the life she expected--"Dad was happy about us going to California; he talked about sourdough bread and fresh fruit and vegetables all year"--with what she got: a black eye and the explanation, "I was drunk . . . you know how rough it's been." Forget her father's vision; Leslie's reality is to "put water on the stove and get bacon and eggs and milk from the ice chest. A can of beer is floating, tilting, in the ice and water, the rest are bent in the paper bag for garbage. I could count them, know how many it takes."
This theme is explored more deeply in "The Pretty Girl," the longest story (it is billed as a novella) in the collection. Here, the narrator, Raymond, enlists our sympathy, saying of his failed marriage, "I still didn't understand . . . why we couldn't just be at peace with one another, in the evenings drink some beer or booze, talking about this and that, then eat some dinner, and be easy about things, which is what I thought we got married for."
We are on his side, too, when we read, ". . . I blame her because I tried so hard and was the way I always was before, when she loved me."
But then an alarm goes off within us, when Raymond tells us ". . . I changed toward her and cursed her and slapped her around when every day was bad and the nights worse."
Soon we are listening to Raymond with a full-blown sense of horror. The alarm is going full tilt: "They would call it rape and assault with a deadly weapon, but those words don't apply to me and Polly. I was taking back my wife for a while; and taking back, for a while anyway, some of what she took from me. That is what it felt like: I went to her place torn and came out mended."
Polly's account of the rape contradicts this ("he pushed her nightgown up her back, the knife's edge touched her stomach") as does her account of the marriage itself, "Raymond yelling at her . . . Raymond slapping her, and on the last night, hitting her with his fist and leaving her unconscious on the bedroom floor, where she woke hearing Jerry Jeff Walker on the record player in the living room and a beer bottle landing on others in the wastebasket."
Is there any hope for the women in Dubus' stories? Raymond approaches Polly again with, "What did I ever do anyways?" and Raymond's brother sums the whole thing up with, "All Ray did was fall in love and not get over it when she got weird the way women do sometimes."
Andre Dubus' mastery of his material and therefore of his readers is total. He knows exactly how he wants us to respond and we do. At first, for instance, we're all Raymond's. Then we hear aforementioned alarms. But Dubus is able to make us laugh with Raymond even after we know him as a beast! This takes place just after Raymond has assaulted Polly's lover. Raymond sees a bystander and tells us, "She's cursing me. I wave at her and walk to my jeep. She is calling me a ---, --- string of other things. I like this girl." Because of this moment, when our laughter puts us in cahoots with Raymond-- our shame, when we read Polly's account of the rape, is enormous.
The Times Are Never So Bad is full of moments of this sort, because Dubus is a writer with real might. His readers don't get off easy.