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Although only two years have passed since the publication of Andre Dubus III’s searing memoir, TOWNIE, it’s been five years since he’s produced a work of fiction. In HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, he portrayed a tragic clash between Iranian immigrants and American culture. THE GARDEN OF LAST DAYS imagined the days leading up to the 9/11 attacks, in part through the hijackers’ eyes. In the four loosely linked novellas of DIRTY LOVE, Dubus has shifted his attention from stories rooted in contemporary conflicts to pay a visit to the battleground between men and women, a subject that provided much of the inspiration for his late father’s outstanding short fiction. In doing that, he has delivered a book that is as brutally honest and tenderly revealing of the state of that timeless conflict as anything written today.
The title, and lengthiest, story features two protagonists at the opposite ends of life. Eighteen-year-old Devon Brandt has fled the tension of a home where her philandering father has betrayed her mother with a much younger woman. Devon has gone to live with her 81-year-old great uncle, Francis, who recognizes the young woman has “jumped overboard and swam to this half-empty old boat she somehow assumed is stable.” A widower and a retired teacher, he is haunted by regret over the alcholism that shadowed his lengthy, childless marriage. Dubus does a masterly job portraying the affinity between the old man and his grand niece, as he encourages her to study for her GED while buffering her frayed relationship with her father. Devon has her own profound regrets, spawned by an embarrassing Internet video and a failed relationship. In making us feel the genuine tenderness that exists between these two characters across the gap of more than six decades, Dubus is fully equal to his task.
In “Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed,” Mark Welch, a successful project manager in his mid-50s, discovers that his wife of 25 years has embarked on an affair (and he has the video evidence to prove it). Bewildered by her infidelity, the “manager of the Welch team” sets out on what he thinks of as the “project of saving his marriage,” though he quickly discovers that his businesslike approach, structured around analyzing “opportunities and threats” has little purchase in the realm of the heart. There are scenes of scarifying conflict here, and the story is charged with the looming threat of violence on nearly every page.
Robert Doucette, the bartender in the story of that title, fancies himself a “man of true romance and high calling,” based chiefly, it seems, on the fitful stabs he makes at writing poetry, though he “just hadn’t put it all down on paper yet.” He falls quickly in love and marries a younger woman, Althea, but, almost predictably, forsakes his vows to take up with one of the waitresses at the Whaler Restaurant, Bar & Hotel, the downmarket seaside New Hampshire establishment that appears in three of the stories. For Dubus, ill-considered actions always have consequences, and the dramatic ones that flow from Robert’s adultery allow him to contemplate a path out of his pathetic self-absorption.
“Marla” suffers by comparison to the other novellas. The title character is a modestly overweight virgin, a 29-year-old bank teller who feels like she’s “turning into one of those rare women who had completely missed the train everyone else had gotten on.” When Dennis, a burly, bearded radio-frequency engineer who’s a customer at the bank, asks her out, their relationship soon flourishes. But its bloom wilts almost as fast, as Marla discovers unappealing aspects of her lover’s personality, from his compulsive cleanliness to his attitude toward children. As her focus of their relationship sharpens, she has to decide whether to reject him or to accept that “for all Dennis was not, for all she didn’t feel for him, he was better than a lifetime of nobody.”
Though Dubus’s characters are capable of starkly selfish acts, he presents them without judgment. None of the stories has a conventional happy ending, but each at least hints at the possibility of redemption. They’re constructed with the sturdiness of well-made furniture, though every so often Dubus throws a punch that lands squarely in the gut, as, for example, when he describes Mark Welch’s house on the morning after he confronts his wife about her affair, summoning up a place where “the smell of dried blood was in the air and great devastation of some kind had happened nearby.” It would be tempting to believe from these stories that faithlessness is the predominant characteristic in the relations between men and women, but Dubus helps us appreciate the truth that, most of the time, we somehow succeed in living peacefully and happily together.
- Harvey Freedenberg