Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Review: "Dirty Love" by Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog was truly one of the most moving and affecting books I've read in the last 15 years, and the film adaptation was powerful and well-acted. Dubus so perfectly told the story of flawed people trying to get what they wanted and felt they were entitled to, with disastrous consequences.

He brings that same literary power (without utter tragedy) to Dirty Love, his collection of tangentially linked novellas about people who want to be happy in love, but the pitfalls of love—infidelity, low self-esteem, foolish mistakes, alcoholism—get in their way. Again, Dubus' characters are far from perfect and their actions don't always make you feel sympathy for them, but their stories are far too common in real life, and they make you feel as you shake your head.

In "Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed," Mark, a middle-aged technology project manager, discovers his wife of more than 25 years, has been cheating on him. For a man who spends his days controlling situations, losing control is quite unsettling, and he tries to figure out what his next steps are—kicking her out of the house, begging for a reconciliation, beating the crap out of her lover—or all of the above.

In "Marla," an overweight woman with low self-esteem has always wondered what it would be like to have a boyfriend and envies the ease by which her female colleagues enter relationships. But when she finally finds a man who shows romantic interest in her, she questions whether what she imagined love would be is a fantasy or should be the reality to aspire to.

The main character in "The Bartender" has always dreamed of being a poet but can never pull his poems together to be more than a tool to seduce women. When he finally meets a woman he cares enough about to marry, he dreams of becoming a different person, but even the impending arrival of a baby can't stop his philandering ways.

And in the title novella, a teenage girl named Devon has fled to her elderly great-uncle's home to escape her father's infidelity and the aftereffects of her sexual escapades being posted online. As her great-uncle struggles with his own memories, Devon dreams of starting over, and wonders if an Iraqi vet she's met online might be the answer.

All four of these novellas are tremendously compelling, although knowing Dubus' writing, I kept expecting the protagonists to do something irreparable, so I felt as if I were reading with my hands metaphorically over my eyes. And while these characters are flawed, happily, they don't veer into House of Sand and Fog territory. Dubus is such a terrific storyteller, and he really could expand all four of these into full-length novels. They're not exactly happy stories, but they're definitely realistic, and I can't stop thinking about them.