That Thing That Makes the World Go ‘Round
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus
Readers will be happy to know that Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog and much more) has returned to fiction after a wonderful foray into memoir with Townie. Novella collections are rare, so Dubus has set himself a daunting task in examining love, dirty in many senses, in these four long stories with penetrating insight and a gift for understanding and sympathizing with these uniquely different stories.
In Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed, Mark, a tech company project manager, has discovered his wife’s affair. Dubus reveals Mark and his wife and her lover in intricate back and forth time sequencing so we’re aware of the depth of their relationship and alas the reasons why it floundered. While the surface of Mark’s life and actions after his discovery are both pitiable and in some ways reprehensible, Dubus creates sympathy for both Mark and his wife that is sad and compelling. As the slow realization of what will happen dawns on him, Mark still holds on to a hope that is heart-rending and gorgeous in its generosity.
Dubus wanders into different territory with Marla, a woman in her late twenties who has stability in her life but no romance. While the normal arc of this plot would be for her to magically or unusually find it, Dubus handles it differently. She finds it and then has to deal with the questions that she could have answered if she had found it earlier in life. Again there is a generosity of spirit here that infuses all the characters, especially her new beloved, Dennis.
We find a real scoundrel in The Bartender. Robert Douchette, after years of drifting and failing to commit to any one woman, has found love and goodness in his new wife, Althea. But he’s one of those hapless and hopeless people who can’t for the life of him recognize and hold on to a good thing. Again Dubus amazes us with his ability to make us able to yearn for Robert’s happiness even in the face of all the evidence that he’s not only incapable of it but that he is the cause of the unhappiness of many others.
The longest and most complex of the novellas is the title story Dirty Love. Devon is an older teen girl who has lost her innocence far too early but has, in spite of all her troubles and anger, a good heart and a yearning for something real. The family structure here is complex but Dubus manages to wind her story into the life story of her elderly Uncle Francis, a new and lonely widower who gives her refuge when she needs to leave her parents home. This is a modern story, maybe even too current, employing not just teenage hormones and real angst, but also electronic devices and viral videos and constant music and Devon’s devotion to her iEverything, a wonderful touch by Dubus. He manages to help us understand Devon’s life through the contrast with Francis’ and his complicated relationship with his now dead but very haunting wife. This is all strong stuff. The source of her disgrace and Dubus’ description of teenage longing and sexual exploration is not pretty stuff. Not because these are inherently distasteful themes but because her specific experiences are so tragically negative and possibly life-marking.
While there are characters in each story who overlap with the next, too much can be made of the intertwining of these narratives. There is almost none. What Dubus has achieved is a look at love and life from very different but never lovely angles and given the reader the experience of feeling with (sympathizing at its root) not so lovely but very real and human beings.
Dubus III, Andre. Dirty Love. W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.