Tuesday, January 27, 2009

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

He would drive to San Bruno and look for Kathy there. it was practically their entire geographical frame of reference. If she wasn't at the storage shed or the truck-stop bar or the El Rancho Motel, then he would try Carl's Jr. on the other side of the freeway. And if that didn't pan out he'd drive south to Millbrae to the Cineplex, where she could possibly be at the movies. Ahead of him in the fog, Corona's main street ended at the base of the hills and the intersection for the turn to Hillside Boulevard and San Bruno. The blinking yellow traffic light above was so obscured it looked to Lester more like a silent pulse. Kathy would not be at her stolen house up in the hills but the colonel would, and there was no crime in cruising slowly by; he was off-duty and out of uniform.

House of Sand and Fog
by Andre Dubus III is the story of Kathy Nicolo, Sheriff Lester Burdon, Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani and their tragic crossing of paths. Kathy wakes one morning to find Sheriff Burdon at her door, informing her that she has been evicted by the county for failing to pay back taxes. Ms. Nicolo informs the Sheriff that there must have been a clerical error, that she owes no taxes. Her pleas prove ineffectual, and her home is auctioned off to Colonel Behrani, a Persian immigrant set on reselling the house for a profit to provide for his family. Behrani is determined to see his family returned to the dignified position they once held in Iran. Kathy's home was all she had left after her husband suddenly left her and she is not willing to let it go easily. Lester find himself falling in love with Kathy and refuses to sit idly by while she suffers a grave injustice. The collosion of these three forces of will leaves families destroyed, lives ruined, and blood spilt.

Dubus' writing is smooth and has its own flow to it. His style is really a pleasure to read. But I have a hard time saying I enjoyed this book. There's really not much to come away from feeling good about. Simply put, House of Sand and Fog is a tragedy. More Shakespearean than Greek, I think. While Kathy and Behrani have their flaws, Lester reminded me of Paris in Romeo and Juliet in the sense that he was merely a victim of circumstance. More or less a simple man, Lester is driven to the edge by his love for a woman he barely knows. Like Paris, he strikes me as the most tragic character in the story, for his life (and that of his family) are ruined because of his involvement in the clash between Behrani and Nicolo.

I suppose if I had one problem with this story, it was the unbalanced portrayal of the plights of Kathy and Behrani. I don't know if Dubus intended to make Behrani seem more at fault than Kathy, but I think it's more likely that he simply failed at making Behrani's motives as justifiable as Kathy's. A young woman has her house stolen out from her because of an improperly addressed envelope. She finds herself homeless with nothing in the bank. She calmly explains this to the man who has bought her home from the county, and yet he refuses to help her rectify the situation by complying with the county when they try to rescind the sale. Now, I understand that Behrani is simply trying to enter the real estate market and provide for his wife and son. I understand that Behrani feels he has committed no wrongdoing in legally purchasing the house from the county. I understand that he has suffered greatly since the fall of the Shah's regime and his flight from Iran. But even with all that, I can't help but look at him as a stubborn, greedy man who knowingly held on to stolen property even after the situation was laid out in front of him. To me, this weakened the story a bit. It wasn't what Dubus (probably) intended, the story of two people with equal stake and righteousness battling for stability. It was an unlucky woman struggling to take back what's hers from a man who refuses to do whats right.

That said, there are enough mitigating factors to make the reader at least somewhat sympathetic to Behrani. And in the end, I suppose this imbalance is rectified as he is the one to lose everything, whereas Lester and Kathy lose only most everything.

Check this out if you like Steinbeck, as Dubus' writing style reminds of his, or if you're a fan of tragedies in general. It's really quite moving and you'll be surprised at how quickly you find yourself swept up in the rise and fall of the principle characters.

Highlights: Lester's mustache, the surprisingly action-packed final act, picturing Jennifer Connelly during all of Kathy's sex scenes.
Lowlights: Behrani's recalcitrance, The inevitably depressing ending


Christopher said...

I think your point about it being a Shakespearean, not a Greek, tragedy is an astute one.

Jim said...

Or Shakespearian, as I so stupidly called it.