It is rare in contemporary literature to read a book in which the characters are naturally allowed to make the decisions that propel the plot forward. So often the people in novels are at the mercy of the story --- mere puppets of clever plot twists or of writers who want to showcase their ability to wring every possible bit of suspense from a situation. Andre Dubus's second novel, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, is a throwback to a time when writing was more important than plot, and the characters mattered more than the cunning of the author who created them. It is a masterpiece in the dying art of character development.
Dubus takes his time introducing us to these flawed, human characters. He brings them into sharp focus with astonishing depth and perception, revealing them as the story unfolds. We first meet Massoud Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian Air Force, who has fled his native land. Unable to find an adequate job in the States, Behrani jumps on the economic opportunity that is presented when he discovers a house up for sale at a sheriff's auction. His plan is to live in the house only long enough to sell it at a high profit. A reserved and dignified man, his fatal flaw is his high need for respectability and his inability to see beyond what he thinks he deserves.
Next we're introduced to Kathy Nicolo, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. Living under the fog of depression after her husband leaves her, she is merely going through the motions. When she is sent a tax bill by the county, she virtually ignores it, knowing that it has been sent in error. Eventually she is evicted from her house, which is sold at auction almost before she has a chance to take action. Her inability to make good choices for herself proves her undoing.
Finally, Lester Burdon enters the picture. Hotheaded and no longer able to keep himself above the law he represents, Lester is one of the sheriff's deputies who helps evict Kathy, and he soon starts an affair with her. He takes on Kathy's cause, determined to reclaim her home, trying to ransom his failing moral compass. It is his macho posturing and stubbornness that soon have all three characters spiraling downward toward the book's inevitable and shattering conclusion.
Dubus gives us the house as a symbol of the American Dream, a refuge in a tumultuous life, a quest for redemption. He chronicles the clash of cultures between the Americans and the Iranians while keeping the humanity of everyone involved at the forefront. We might not always like these characters, but we care about them deeply and want everything to run smoothly for them. It is a testament to Dubus's style that he allows them sometimes to stumble.
Reviewed by Liz Keuffer on January 22, 2011