Dirty Love

By Andre Dubus III

(Norton, $25.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?                                                       

Massachusetts author Andre Dubus III could say writing is in his blood, as his late (and often estranged) father was the noted short story writer Andre Dubus and his cousin James Lee Burke writes best-selling mystery novels. But Dubus III took a long path to becoming a much-honored writer: studying sociology and political science and working as a carpenter, actor, bartender, boxer, private investigator and bounty hunter before plunging into writing full-time. We’re glad he did, as he is the author of such bestselling and critically praised novels as “The Garden of Last Days”  and “House of Sand and Fog,” which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, Oprah’s Book Club pick, finalist for the National Book Award and an Oscar-nominated movie starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley. He followed those successes with “Townie,” a frank and fascinating memoir of growing up poor and angry, son of a struggling divorced mother and a famous but disengaged father. It won an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature.

What is this book about?

What we want, what we need, what we get. In this collection of linked novellas – not quite a novel, but close – Dubus explores what we do for love or infatuation or gratification, and what it costs us. Set north of Boston, where Dubus and his family live, the stories show the “dirty” side of love: raw hungers, ego trips, the urge to control, the willingness to betray. They involve a long-married husband who finds out his wife has been unfaithful, an overweight girl who gains a lover but loses something in the process, a bartender and wannabe poet who betrays his wife at a very difficult time and a girl who is victimized by a slutty online image that goes viral as she struggles to regain respect.

Why you’ll like it:

Dubus has a deep understanding of human nature, which illuminates the lives of his characters: ordinary, flawed people trying and often failing to find some satisfaction in their constricted lives. He writes with clear eyes and a compassionate heart, laying out the predicaments his characters get themselves into with care and welcoming readers into their stories. There’s nothing far-fetched here, and that is the magic of this kind of writing. We feel for these people even when we don’t like them, and we can learn the lessons that they would prefer to ignore.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “The master of naturalistic New England fiction returns with a book of four loosely connected short works that showcases his Dreisarian abilities at their most trenchant. In the superb “Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed,” Mark Welch is a middle-aged project manager who suspects that his wife is having an affair. How he finds out and what he does about it form the core of this novella, which is affecting for all the ways the author shows how difficult it is to accept that sometimes we know the least about those we think we know best. Credit Dubus for taking a hackneyed premise and making it seem new through the specificity of his observations. One shorter work deals with Marla, an overweight bank teller, and the surprising things she discovers about herself after she falls in love for the first time; another follows Robert Doucette, a bartender-cum-poet who cheats on his pregnant wife in a way that has repercussions for their unborn daughter. In The Scarlet Letter-ish title novella, teenage Devon Brandt, after an Internet indiscretion went viral, goes off to live with her great-uncle Francis, a recent widower and Korean War veteran, and develops an online relationship with Hollis, a 27-year-old Army vet. But will she ever be able to escape her past? Once again, Dubus creates deeply flawed characters and challenges the reader to identify with their common humanity.”

Booklist’s starred review says: “Award–winning novelist Dubus debuted as a short story writer nearly 25 years ago. He now reclaims the form in an incisive collection of subtly linked tales set in a changing coastal town. With fresh energy and conviction, Dubus explores the demands and disappointments of desire and marriage, generating a critical mass of sensory detail and refined suspense. A desperately orderly man hires a detective to follow his longtime, suddenly unfaithful wife. Two overweight loners attempt to find the intimacy other couples seem to take for granted. A bartender posing as a poet and living on charm and evasiveness suddenly faces the realities of fatherhood. In the unforgettable novella “Dirty Love,” Devon is hounded out of high school when a dirty cell-phone video, recorded without her permission, is posted online. She seeks sanctuary with her great-uncle Francis, a retired teacher haunted by his experiences in the Korean War. Dubus’ emotional discernment, sexual candor, penetrating evocation of place, sensitivity to family conflicts, and keen attunement to the perils of our embrace of “iEverything”—from online sexual roulette to cyberbullying and violent video games—are electrifying, compassionate, and profound. These are masterful and ravishing tales of loneliness, confusion, betrayal, the hunger for oblivion, and the quest for forgiveness.”

Ron Charles  writes in the Washington Post:   “It’s that just-out-of-reach desire that creates such poignancy in each of these stories, including one about a philandering bartender named Robert, who likes to pretend he’s a poet. He’s not, but Dubus is. He’s got a transparent, easy style that’s never self-consciously lyrical but constantly delivers phrases of insight and gentle wit that lay open these characters without scalding them with irony, as we’ve come to expect from so many clever novelists.”

Says Library Journal: The latest from the best-selling author of The Garden of Last Days and House of Sand and Fog is a collection of loosely linked novellas that explore, with devastating detail, the failings and never-ending needs of people who search for fulfillment in work, food, sex, and love. Dubus’s characters are flawed individuals who discover how life is easy to screw up. Marla, an overweight young woman, at last finds love but loses herself. Robert, a bartender and aspiring poet, betrays his pregnant wife. Mark, a controlling manager, catches his wife of 25 years in an affair. And Devon, a teenage girl in the astounding and timely title novella, flees the fallout of an intimate image of herself posted online. She escapes to her uncle’s house, seeking his respect, and befriends a soldier on the Internet who offers her redemption. VERDICT Filled with heartbreak, slices of happiness, and unrelenting hope, this expertly crafted collection depicts human weakness and our amazing capacity for forgiveness. Dubus fans will embrace this latest work, as will lovers of the short story and fiction. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews says: Dubus anatomizes personal–especially sexual–relationships brilliantly in these loosely concatenated novellas. At the center of the characters’ world are the small, economically depressed towns in Massachusetts where waiters, waitresses, bartenders and bankers live and move and have their being. To Dubus’ credit, he doesn’t feel he has to solve their personal problems and the intricate twists of their relationships. Instead, he chronicles what’s going on with sympathy but without any sense that he needs to rescue them. In the first narrative, we meet hapless Mark Welch, who’s recently found out his wife, Laura, is having an affair with a banker. Although occasionally picking up and hefting a piece of lead pipe, Mark ultimately finds himself powerless to change the circumstances of his life. In the second story we follow Marla, a physically unprepossessing bank teller (yes, she works at the same bank as Laura’s lover) who feels her life slipping away from her. She begins a desultory affair with a 37-year-old engineer whose passions tend toward video games and keeping his house pathologically clean. The next story introduces us to Robert Doucette, bartender and poet manqué, who marries Althea, a sweet but reticent upholsterer. In the final months of Althea’s pregnancy, Robert has hot sex with Jackie, a waitress at the restaurant, and Althea finds this out and simultaneously goes into labor. The final narrative focuses on Devon, an 18-year-old waitress at the tavern where Robert works. To get away from an abusive father, she lives with a considerate great uncle (who harbors his own secrets), but she has to deal with the unintended consequences of an untoward sexual act that was disseminated through social media. First-rate fiction by a dazzling talent.

When is it available?

“Dirty Love” is on the shelves at the Albany and Dwight branches of the Hartford Public Library.

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