Dirty" is one of those great multipurpose words giving you the most bang for your buck. It's a verb, adjective and adverb all wrapped into one five-letter package. Depending on one's standard of cleanliness, homes can be dirty. Places, too.
Then, of course, there are people with smudges on their souls and those who leave their psychic pollution behind for their loved ones to dispose of properly. Both are equal opportunity offenders in best-selling author Andre Dubus III's four interconnected novellas making up his most appropriately named book, "Dirty Love." As one of his characters says, "People don't like to pick up where other people left off. People like to buy new."
By Andre Dubus IIIrchak
W.W. Norton & Co. ($25.95).
The first novella, "Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed," pivots on the marriage of Mark and Laura Welch and their disintegrating relationship in the aftermath of Laura's affair with a prominent banking executive in their New England town. (All the characters live close to each other, adding more validity to the premise that we never really do know the demons lurking beneath our neighbors' carefully manicured exteriors -- or our own).
Because Mark takes the same measured, structured approach to his relationship with his wife as he does with his job, it's only logical that he hires a detective to catch -- and film -- Laura and her lover in flagrante delicto.
With "Marla," we meet a perpetually single and chronically-low-self-esteem-addled bank teller who is content being a homebody, yet longs for more.
When Marla begins dating a longtime customer, she falls in love with the possibility of everyone else's ideal of perfection before realizing the price she will eventually pay for feeling trapped. "[S]he began to feel the possibility of an end ahead of them, the way the light of an August afternoon could sometimes cast the shadows of October."
By the third novella ("The Bartender"), it is clear what Mr. Dubus is getting at. In this story about a wannabe-poet-as-bartender (aren't they all?) committing adultery while his wife is pregnant, the emotion in his prose intensifies.
It's as if Mr. Dubus is telling his reader that "Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed" and "Marla" were but a prelude, precautionary tales for humanity's darkest, trashiest sides. Pick your poison: dollars, drinks, a dalliance too many: here's the bottom of the slippery slope if we don't get our collective acts together.
"He was sweating a foul sweat: bourbon and desire and a profound weakness; he was almost certain he would have done it with Jackie one more time, a final time. All the windows were open, but there was no sea breeze at all, just the smell of sewage and salt water from the marsh, the faint scent of garbage from the dumpster on the other side of the lot, rancid fried fish and clams, hot metal and dried soda, and he could not imagine bringing his wife and baby back to this. If she would come -- there was the way she'd turned her head away from him as she bled on Jackie's floor, her placenta 'abrupted.' "
This segues beautifully (albeit messily) into "Dirty Love," the last novella and the most emotionally powerful of Mr. Dubus' offerings within this quartet. When we glimpse 18-year-old Devon at the conclusion of "The Bartender," she's a waitress at a beach front seafood restaurant and a minor character, absolutely forgettable.
In "Dirty Love," Devon takes center stage as we learn her full story.
In this era of life lived via camera phone, Devon's drama is every parent's and high school student's potential reality nightmare: a sexual encounter becoming a sordid video posted online, leading to having her self-image shattered and "the sense that we are all ugly and that beauty is a respite and innocence is a lie."
In each of these novellas, there's something uneasily familiar about these people, a vague recollection of having met them before, like cousins several times removed. They feel real, autobiographical, with histories and futures combined. ("But how can anyone ever be clean with family? Blood is too dirty, dirty with love that can so easily turn to hate.")
These characters are also classic Andre Dubus III. Geography notwithstanding, it would not have been at all surprising to find April from "The Garden of Last Days" or Kathy from "House of Sand and Fog" reprising their roles between these pages. The difference between this and his two aforementioned novels is that in "Dirty Love" Mr. Dubus finally seems more in his element and in control of the narrative.
Admittedly, I wasn't a fan of "The Garden of Last Days" or "House of Sand and Fog." I hesitate to whisper literary genetics, but as an author, the shorter form seems to work better to the younger Andre Dubus' advantage.
That said, Mr. Dubus doesn't ease up on dealing out life's muck. "Dirty Love" is not a feel-good, uplifting read -- it's quite graphic and overwhelmingly sad -- although with each of Mr. Dubus' novellas leaving the reader wondering, he delivers ever the faintest optimistic note in the darkness.bookreviews
Melissa M. Firman (melissaFirman.com) is a writer, editor, and blogger living in Cranberry. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM