Thursday, April 2, 2009

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Though Jim's review was not uniformly positive, I thought that his description of Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog made it sound sufficiently interesting to give it a go-round. Unfortunately, I think that he enjoyed it quite a bit more than I did.

The story is about a house--a particularly ordinary house near the California coast--that is taken away from one woman, Kathy Nicolo, by clerical error, and sold to Colonel Behrani, a former Iranian military officer scraping by in the United States after being forced away by the Iranian revolution. The third player is Lester Burdon, a sheriff who falls in love with Kathy despite being the one to evict her from the house.

For Kathy, the house is a symbol of history and stability, for Behrani, it is his way into real estate and the promise of a better future for his wife and children. Though Jim notes that Behrani seemed more unreasonable than Kathy, I'm not sure I felt the same--the house clearly has great symbolic value for Behrani, who struggles with the loss of his identity in his new home, and I can understand that he might not want to give it up easily. However, I never received a fair answer to this question--since the kind of auction where Behrani purchases Kathy's house seems rather common, why can't he just do it again with a house that isn't ill-gotten?

What I expected was the kind of story I love, two opposing sides who believe themselves to be in the right hurtling toward tragedy. And that is the sort of story I think that Dubus intended, and yet I found crucial elements missing--though I am not quite sure what to call them. Is it likability? I admit that I felt some measure of affection for Behrani, who carries himself like a wounded lion, hurting very deeply but refusing to admit it even to himself. And yet, as Jim notes, he is stubborn, and sometimes inexplicably so. Kathy I found easy to loathe, a flighty and witless woman who throws away weeks worth of notices from the tax office because she claims that she was in a state of confusion or mental unrest after her husband leaves her. When she isn't busy being helpless she spends her time being hapless, giving in without resistance to a love affair with Lester, as well as the bottle. With the house gone her life is unraveling, and while that explains some of the things she does--like pointing Lester's revolver at a convenience store clerk during a nervous breakdown, or the various ways she intrudes upon the Behranis--don't exactly make Behrani's assessment of her as a psycho bitch any less accurate.

But the worst of the three is the sheriff, Lester. Jim finds him to be the most tragic figure, and to be sure he causes the most tragedy, but I found myself rooting for Lester to get his most of the time. Here is a man, married with kids, who is so overcome by Kathy's beauty that he enters into an extended affair with her, and idolizes her so much that he bends--and breaks--the law in severe and mystifying way to help her get her house back. Perhaps it is because Kathy seems like such a poor catch that I find it difficult to hold Lester in such high esteem--why ruin your life and the life of others for such a nutjob? There simply is no magic in their affair, which is cheap and ugly, and that makes the things Lester does for Kathy--ridiculous, improbable things which pull the pin on the tragedy--seem all the more absurd.

But more than that, I think these characters suffer from a lack of believability. I have been trying to put my finger on it for a while now, and I think that perhaps the issue is that these characters fit their types too snugly. Behrani is a proud man dealing with the loss of his status and the difficult future of his family, but there is no spark in him that signifies to us that he is a human being. Kathy is worse. She is a recovering addict and an addict who is recovering; her relationships with people operate around that single facet. Though I have not seen the film, I think perhaps it may succeed where the novel does not on the strength of performances by good actors like Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley, who have the power to breathe life into writing that is rather inanimate.

To boot, the first three-quarters of the book are pretty damn boring. Kathy sits outside her house and broods, then fucks Lester; Behrani rages inwardly about Kathy, or his ouster from Iran, or his wife's dissatisfaction. The final chapters are better, because they ratchet up the action level about 90%, and the tragedy unfolds, but never does the plot seem borne from the character of real people but engineered meticulously by the (not so) invisible hand of the author. But what is left, at the end? There's quite a lot of blood and ruin, but why? To teach these fatuous people a lesson? This is a tricky game if not done right; here it feels as if Dubus is punishing his characters simply for punishment. The tragedy was conceived long before what precedes it; tragedy is the point. Like tearing the wings off of flies.

I guess to someone who likes this book all of my complaints ought to seem unfair; after all I'm on record above as loving a good tragedy. But this one is too thin, too bloodless to work for me.


Nihil Novum said...

If I were Jim, I would kill you.

Christopher said...

If I were Jim, I'd be pretty far away.

Jim said...

If I were Jim, I could stop living this double life.

Jim said...

Also Chris if I had a nickel for every time you tried to intimidate a Persian family on behalf of your alcoholic slutty mistress, I would have like 4 nickels.

Christopher said...

Which, in Africa, can buy a house and a car.

Nihil Novum said...