Half a century ago, readers of the New Yorker thirsted for the short stories of John Cheever for the window he opened into suburban life and the tensions he exposed between an emerging post-scarcity society and the vanishing World War II way of life that fertilized his stories. That role today might be assigned to Andre Dubus III. Best known for his novel House of Sand and Fog, the movie version of which, starring Ben Kingsley, earned three Academic Award nominations, in Dirty Love, as in his other works, Dubus mines the tension between generations and the widening gap between traditional behavioral norms and today’s technologically-driven anything-goes code.
Dirty Love consists of four interconnected novellas. In “Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed,” Mark Welch, a fifty-year-old project manager, has discovered his wife is having an affair. Dubus takes us through Welch’s stages of rage to the moment when he finally admits his role in the rift.
In “Marla,” a single bank clerk, despairing of getting married, finds herself courted by a man who it turns out is not her perfect match. Will she repair to her uncompromising approach to life or settle for a man who says he loves her?
In “The Bartender,” Robert has trouble leaving behind a lifestyle where alcohol is the doorway to do-it-if-it feels-good-behavior. When he gets married without thinking through the consequences, he quickly puts himself in a position where he jeopardizes the good fortune that fell into his lap.
Dubus’ fourth and longest piece, “Dirty Love,” reveals the gap between generations as 18-year-old Devon moves in with her grand-uncle because of conflict at home. Francis is still mourning the death of his wife and wants to be a positive influence on his niece. He drives her to and from her job at the same restaurant where Robert is the bartender and where Mark Welch nurses his anger. He wants to help her study for her GRE so she can go to college, but the future Francis envisions for Devon is years away from her present concerns.
Devon––like many young women––is the product of a culture where sexual activity begins at a younger and younger age. Does her method of dealing with those pressures and her attempts to retain her self-worth differ from that adopted by others? Women who have had similar experiences to this character can answer that question better than I. I can only marvel that Dubus has portrayed her inner life with such sensitivity and depth.
Dubus deserves to be read not only because he sees the ways that people live at cross purposes, but because he helps us see them as well, and because he treats his characters as unique individuals without moralizing or stereotyping. You won’t find easy answers in Dirty Love, but you will come away with a greater appreciation of life’s questions.