Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog

by Jess

My mother is a nervous woman.  When we watch movies together, she always wants to know if it is going to “end well,” by which she means the main characters will fall in love, be reunited, get exonerated, find justice, survive the apocalypse, etc., etc.  “I don’t want to watch it if it doesn’t end well,” she says.

By my mother’s estimation, Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog does not end well.  It’s a thoroughly satisfying ending in terms of an excellent story leading to its only possible denouement, but it’s certainly not how I wanted things to end up.

Dubus does a great job of capturing two very disparate voices, in Colonel Massoud Behrani and Kathy Nicolo.  A recovering addict, Nicolo is evicted from her home because of a paperwork error by the county, and Behrani purchases the home on the cheap at auction in an attempt to restore his family’s dignity and position, as they have been in decline ever since they were forced to flee Iran after a regime change.  Whew.  Anyway, Nicolo wants it back, and she’s a huge jerk about it, and she gets her stupid boyfriend, Deputy Lester Burdon, in on the action.  Behrani is a beautifully tragic character, and his wife, Naderah, may be even more pathetic.  Despite his reversal of fortune, Behrani still wears his pride like a suit of armor, but Naderah has nothing left.  Their brokenness is beautifully evoked.

My biggest complaint about the book was in the second half, when Dubus switches us to Burdon’s POV, and we have to hear all about how his dad left, and he was bullied as a kid, and he’s actually a chickenshit cop, and how he realized too late that he was really only in love with his wife’s idealism and not with her directly — we could do without all of this.  It slows down the page-turning action.  I suppose it’s intended to give Burdon’s actions more depth and significance toward the end, but I think we could learn just enough of this information through dialog with Kathy instead of having to listen to Burdon ramble on.  I liked the dichotomy of hearing from Behrani and Nicolo for most of the book, and throwing Burdon into the mix felt unbalanced.

That’s really a rather minor complaint, though, in the greater scheme of things.  House of Sand and Fog was a finalist for the National Book Award (and another Oprah pick, go figure), and it’s really an attention grabber.  I tore through it in a couple of days, even losing precious hours of sleep while the baby was sleeping in order to finish it.  Toward the end, I kept gasping and covering my mouth in horror, and C asked several times, “Are you okay?”  Then I would relate to him the events of the novel as though they had happened in real life (“And then the stupid cop Lester Burdon kicked in the door…”).

I might check out the film version, but it’s not going to be as good as the book, bottom line.  Apparently the ending is much different, and I don’t want it to ruin the experience for me.

PS.  Imagine my joy upon discovering that Dubus is a cousin of James Lee Burke, whose work I was pleased to discover of late.  I love when things come together like that.