Monday, July 27, 2009

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Picked this one up at the library’s semi-annual book sale and couple of years ago. I saw the movie and remember liking it—especially Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Colonel Behrani—so I decided to read the book. Funny thing. When I was about halfway through the book I accidentally left it on an airplane and had to order another used copy through Amazon. Based on the library’s prices, at most I paid fifty cents for it the first time I bought it. On Amazon, the used copy was one cent, plus $3.99 shipping and handling. So, worst case, the book cost me $4.50, compared to its $14 cover price.

It’s worth a lot more. According to the paperback version I have, the novel was a finalist for the National Book Award, but evidently didn’t win it. Even not knowing what competition it was up against, and even though I enjoyed the novel immensely, I think I can see why it didn’t win.

The back cover talks about three main characters coming into conflict with one another—Colonel Behrani, once a wealthy man in Iran, now a struggling immigrant willing to bet everything he has to restore his family’s dignity—Kathy Nicolo, a troubled young woman whose house is all she has left, and who refuses to let her hard-won stability slip away from her—and Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon, a married man who finds himself falling in love with Kathy, and becomes obsessed with helping her fight for justice. But I think the novel is better interpreted has having only two main characters who are in conflict with one another—Behrani and Kathy—with Lester as a lesser character, a kind of hapless Iago who inserts himself into the conflict and brings the final and ultimate tragedy.

Dubus himself seems to support this interpretation through much of the novel by switching the first-person narrative back and forth exclusively between Behrani and Kathy—an appealing and well-crafted technique that really lets us see and understand these two central characters and the forces that have shaped them. Lester only begins to come into the same kind of focus at the beginning of Part 2—more than halfway into the novel—but only from the third-person perspective of an unnamed narrator. We certainly learn more about Lester in these passages, but we obviously don’t hear his thoughts in the same way we continue to hear Behrani’s and Kathy’s. In making this narrative decision, Dubus technically keeps Lester positioned as an interloper between the two protagonists, but the lines between them all begin to blur and the casual reader can be excused for losing track of who bears the final responsibility.

To me it’s clear. In both the book and in the movie, it is Lester who manufactures the problem and who turns it fatal by trying to address it in a ruinous and sometimes ridiculous fashion. The fact that Lester is a deputy sheriff is played to greater effect in the movie, where this viewer was left with the disturbing impression that it was Lester’s perspective as an officer of the law which directly resulted in the tragedy—his need to impose his “good guy” and “bad guy” labels on the situation and then to act in accordance with his rigid training and procedures to resolve it. In the book it is more obvious that Lester is acting entirely outside the boundaries of the law, making his status as a police officer more ironic than central to the rising action.

What I like best through the bulk of the novel is the way Dubus seems to refuse to take sides in the Behrani/Kathy conflict—showing both their redeeming qualities and their selfish flaws in equal proportion, and leaving it up to the reader to decide who is in the right and who is in the wrong. This overall perspective is maintained even as Lester begins to insert himself into the conflict, and even as the tragedy unfolds. Through Lester’s actions, Behrani’s son is mistakenly shot and killed, Lester is arrested, and Behrani murders Kathy out of vengeance and then commits murder/suicide on his wife and himself rather than face the shame and sorrow that has engulfed his family. The novel could and should have ended with Lester in his jail cell in protective custody, reflecting on all that had happened and drifting off to sleep on his bunk.

After what seemed a long while, Lester’s body began to feel like part of the bunk. He was breathing deeply through his nose, and as sleep began to take him he mouthed a prayer for Esmail [Behrani’s son], for his full recovery [Lester not knowing that Esmail had died from the gunshots], and he saw himself holding and kissing Bethany and Nate [his children]. Then he was in a boat on some river and Carol [his wife] and Kathy were lying beside him and there were thunderheads in the sky but there was nothing to do about them, and so Lester closed his eyes, one arm beneath each woman. Something rumbled far off in the eastern sky. The air began to turn cool. He breathed in the smell of fish scales and perfume and damp wood. One of the women let out a whimper, as if in the middle of a bad dream, but Lester just settled deeper into the bottom of the boat and waited, waited for the river to take them where it was going to anyway, to the inevitable conclusion of all he had done and failed to do, the air cooler now, almost cold, the boat beginning to rock.

But the book doesn’t end there. What follows is 17 more pages of Kathy—who isn’t dead after all. Behrani strangled her to unconsciousness, evidently, but not death. These extra pages feel a lot like band-aid and a betrayal. They betray the consistent tone of not taking sides Dubus had expertly maintained through the rest of the novel. As dismal as her life now is, Kathy is alive and Behrani is dead—and that’s not fair given the rules initially set. And they’re also a kind of Hollywood band-aid slapped over the open wound that we would have otherwise been left with. This reader would have certainly preferred the open wound, and I suspect the National Book Award Committee probably would have, too.

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House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
on Amazon
on Wikipedia
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1 comment:

  1. The film had a different ending - a much better one, in my opinion.