“I’ll hear someone describe my characters as flawed or outsiders or people who fall between the cracks and I just haven’t met anyone who is not that. Lately I’ve been meeting some wealthy people who seem to be in charge and they look like broken, falling-between-the-cracks people to me. I think I have this secret belief, or not-so-secret belief that most of us are just winging our lives and we are doing the best we know how to do and we are still kind of stunned that we are where we are whether it’s a beautiful place, or some place that gets all sorts of good attention, or a pretty negative place. Man, I just think it’s hard to live a good, noble loving life but we do our best every day.” [Full interview; highly recommended.]
It’s a “cruel culture” today, Dubus argues, and his enormous empathy for these lives and these plights give “Dirty Love” raw power.
In “Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed,” Mark is a project manager who understands risk but is surprised to discover his wife’s long-running affair. “You must identify it, analyze it, then develop a response to it. You must monitor and control it.” The new predicament presents many options for how to proceed; he struggles—mightily.
Bank teller “Marla” is dealing with the peculiarities of a new—her first—boyfriend and discovering what a relationship is—and isn’t. Challenges ahead. Of her new boyfriend, Marla thinks: “He seemed to be done with the real conversation, but it had cleared a cold dead path through her head; it was the first time he’d ever told her he loved her, but hearing him talk this way about what she had always viewed as the highest gift God could give, his paw resting too heavily on her thigh, the sickening smell of vanilla air freshener in his car, another Sunday afternoon wasted at a movie where men shot or impaled or blew up each other, she began to suspect she was nothing more than an easy addition to his life, one he could penetrate half-asleep or go out with on the weekend, but that’s it—no one to start a family with, nothing like that.”
Robert is “The Bartender.” And a poet. He thinks he is called “once again to great and important things—namely his poetry, becoming a published poet.” But he’d just as soon party. He likes “bourbon-floating moments.” He wants a reprieve from “husbandhood and fatherhood and all of their weight.” He cheats on his wife in the dreary motel room where the workers live near a restaurant, The Whaler, on Boston’s north shore.
Devon works in the same restaurant and in “Dirty Love,” she can’t wear headphones or her nose stud when she works the floor so she had to “work those nights with her insides never matching her outsides so there was never a sliding forward on a current you made yourself.” Devon is struggling to establish a new reputation after a scandalous video of her is posted online. She’s living with an uncle, Francis, who is a teacher who wonders how to best dole out advice to his troubled niece (“Dirty Love” is the only story in among these four that switches points of view).
Thinks Francis: “With the hard cases, it was always a walk along a high wire. Call them to task and then risk having them close themselves off more than they already were; ignore this opportunity to teach Devon something important—about consideration, for example, or someone else’s water bill—and abdicate his responsibility to her entirely.” Though many decades older, Francis has his own issues and understands reputations and the power of self-esteem.
Andre Dubus crawls up inside the head of his characters and sees real people with real struggles. They are keenly aware of the choices in front of them and equally aware of their own most fundamental desires. Again, listening to Dubus on “Bookworm” will clue you in to Dubus’ blue-collar credentials. Dubus was a bartender for 12 years; Bruce Springsteen is his favorite musician.
Amid the relative gloom of all four stories and darkness that follows all four (five) main characters, there are slivers of hope. Fascinating to listen to Dubus suggest that “House of Sand and Fog” (one of my favorite novels of the past 20 years or so) could have used a “few more molecules of hope” in its black ending.
“Dirty Love” continues to shed bright light on the struggle between optimism and pessimism, between resilience and doom.
These characters are simultaneously winging it and also, down deep, trying to do their best, in whatever form that takes.