When one makes it past the daunting amount of exposition in Dubus’ “A Father’s Story”, one finds a story that, at its core, champions the disparity between “earthly” and “supernatural” love. While the back-story does work to set the tone of the piece, the true meat of the narrative begins to unfold only when Luke’s daughter, Jennifer, returns home after a hit-and-run accident in which she mortally wounds a young man. It is at this point that the previous seven or so pages of the story become moot, and all pretense at living a spiritual life, being correct with the higher authority of God, goes off the stage.
This is not to say we cannot appreciate the moral dilemma with which Luke is faced. Time and again in the first pages we have instances of his struggles with living a “good” life. He is friends with the local Catholic priest, a Father Paul, who “is different from the Irish who abound [in north-eastern Massachusetts]” (371). Nevertheless, after Mass, in the sacristy, the two will often “have a cigarette and a chat…[they] are two men talking like any two men on a morning in America, about baseball…presidents…murders…the clouds” (374).
Luke regularly has the priest over for dinner, as well as keeping him for a hunting and drinking buddy. In all, Luke and Paul have a friendly relationship, strengthened by their mutual connection with God, but mostly by their own earthly dealings with one another.
Luke even goes so far as to describe his failings with his wife, Gloria. The frustration of practicing the ritual of “rhythm method” contraception seems to have been a deciding factor in the schism that eventually formed between Luke and his ex-wife. He describes how often they were like “two young animals lying side by side in heat” (376) deeply and passionately in love, and yet too affected by dogma to use birth control, or withdraw before climax. He goes on to remark that he and his wife “were so angered and oppressed by [their] passion that [they] could see no further than [their] loins” (376). It isn’t until long after the fact, after their four children are conceived during the “safe periods” of the rhythm, after Gloria is his ex-wife and the children are long gone (save Jennifer) that Luke realizes how enslaved he was by this doctrine. He speaks at length on 376, comparing being held fast under this ritual as comparable to any other form of subjugation:
“…I understand how people can be enslaved for generations before they throw down their tools or use them as weapons, the form of their slavers…absorbing their emotions and thoughts until finally they have little or none at all to direct with clarity…at the owners and legislators.”
These two examples of Luke’s strained relationship with God, with all of the trappings of the worship of God, are key to understanding how, at the end, Luke can finally determine to shrug off what is “Good” for what is, at least in his mind, “Right”. When Jennifer comes to him the night of the accident, confessing herself, seeking his help, he has no other thought than to “put on boots and a shirt and [leave] her with the bottle [of whiskey]” (379), to go out into the night in search of the victim. In one of the strongest moments of the story, Luke has a moment of absolute clarity where he “prayed that [the victim] was alive, while beneath that prayer…another one stirred: that if [the man] were dead, they would not get Jennifer” (379). When the man is found, when he is discovered to have been alive right up until just after his discovery at the side of the road, Luke makes his most telling decision. After returning home and announcing to his daughter that the man was dead, he lies to Jennifer, saying “he was probably dead when he hit the ground” (381). This is a lie of protection, one of saving his daughter the guilt of not having called for aid, for not having stopped to check for the body herself. It is an immediate parental response that will ring true for most, if not all, readers. That lie, and his covering up of the accident by driving his daughter’s car into a tree to disguise the damage, his lack of reporting the accident to the proper authorities, is in direct contradiction of what most people of his faith could consider the “Good” action.
Even though there is a path to redemption in Catholicism, that of confession to a priest in order to gain what absolution one can from ones sins, Luke categorically states that “[he] has not and will not” seek that route (383). Instead, he speaks directly to God, with God, imagined though it may be. He remarks on 384, that “[he] would do it again…[because he is]…the father of a girl.” God, in Luke’s mind, replies that He too is a Father, but Luke insists that the bond between a father and daughter is different, that “if one of [his] sons had come to [him] that night, [he] would have phoned the police and told them to meet…at the top of the hill” (384). He elaborates that “it is not that [he] loves them less, but that [he] could bear the pain of watching and knowing [his] sons’ pain, could bear it with pride” (384).
The overall statement of the story comes through clearly when Luke says to God, “You never had a daughter, and, if You had, You could not have borne her passion”, that “[he] loves her more than [he] loves truth” (384). God further insists that Luke “loves in weakness” to which Luke responds, confidently and clearly, “As You love me” (384) bringing to the fore the undeniable message of Dubus’ Christianity, of an eternal and indefatigable love that transcends all transgression. Luke, in his turn, takes on the sins of his daughter, sacrificing his own piety, his own peace of mind and close, secretless friendship with Father Paul, to allow his daughter to live, if not untroubled, then less troubled than she would otherwise have been. This is the whole of Luke’s drive as a character, and he fulfils his role as father admirably.