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Such Kindness


Such Kindness

Tom Lowe Jr., the protagonist of Andre Dubus III’s SUCH KINDNESS, may not have hit bottom, but he certainly can see it from where he sits in a subsidized housing apartment in his small Massachusetts town. Dubus’ latest novel is a precisely observed and empathetic portrait of despair and redemption. It also is a subtle critique of social and economic inequality in America in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when people like Tom suffered deeply and the financial manipulators who engineered the collapse never faced accountability for their misdeeds.

The year is 2020 in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. More than a decade has passed since the time when Tom, a skilled carpenter, finished building a house for his wife, Ronnie, and young son, Drew, in a grove of pine and cedar trees overlooking a saltwater marsh on the Massachusetts coast.

"...a precisely observed and empathetic portrait of despair and redemption. It also is a subtle critique of social and economic inequality in America in the aftermath of the Great Recession..."

But like millions of his fellow citizens who watched their lives implode after 2008, Tom had indulged a quintessentially American optimism about the future that led him to agree to an adjustable rate mortgage that almost instantly became unaffordable after his teaser rate spiked. When he fell from a roof, fracturing his back and both hips --- now held together with screws that give him a sensation that he frequently describes as being on fire” --- his working days abruptly ended, followed not long thereafter by a foreclosure notice.

And now, at age 54, this once “reliable workhorse” has been transformed into “nothing but a broken-boned dog,” and his version of the American dream has turned into a nightmare. He subsists on a monthly electronic benefit transfer that he sells to a friend for 75 percent of the face amount to secure the cash he requires to buy the vodka that serves as a “pain distracter” now that he has kicked his addiction to “O,” the Oxycontin he would sometimes use a teenage Drew to purchase for him. His car has been impounded for unpaid traffic citations, he’s had to give up his cell phone, and he’s planning to sell his remaining tools for quick cash to recover the vehicle so he can drive across the state to visit Drew at college.

Dubus doesn’t reserve his compassionate attention for Tom. His next-door neighbor in “the 8” (his nickname for the subsidized housing where he lives, after the government program that makes it possible) is Trina, a young single mother with three unruly children and an abusive boyfriend. When Tom casually proposes the idea of sifting through trash looking for the convenience checks that credit card companies send to almost anyone, to his dismay, Trina and her new friend, Jamey, follow through on the scheme. Tom understands this means that they’ve “just entered a more lawless world.”

Without revealing how it ends here, Dubus recognizes that the story of Tom’s slow climb out of the pit is much more interesting and satisfying than the grim details of how he got there. Bit by bit, in an assortment of unexceptional but quietly revelatory encounters with his neighbors and others --- like the widow of Larry, the owner of the liquor store where he buys his vodka, at Larry’s funeral, or the hour when he shelters a young woman and her small children after they’re nearly involved in a serious accident --- Tom begins to understand the idea of interconnectedness and the simple beauty of expressing compassion for a fellow human being in seemingly ordinary acts.

Dubus explores how Tom comes to terms with the failure of his marriage, which ended amid the family’s financial collapse after Ronnie embarked on an affair with a lawyer she later marries. Tom sarcastically refers to his ex-wife as an “abundist,” a term he coins for one used to a life of abundance. But as he reflects on their relationship, his bitterness at the way she “jumped ship and left me to swim away from the wreckage alone” slowly gives way to an understanding of how it was his obsession with work that ultimately undermined it.

In a similar vein, Tom must deal with his guilt over his absence from the life of his son, who is about to celebrate his 20th birthday and wrestle with his own demons. In recent years, their communication mostly has been limited to emails and the occasional money orders Tom sends when he can spare a bit of cash. But he realizes he’s at risk of losing Drew forever.

Dubus’ portrait of Tom Lowe Jr. brings to mind characters in the stories of Russell Banks and Raymond Carver, but even in his darkest moments, there’s a softer hue to this character. SUCH KINDNESS is a story about how in the third decade of the 21st century in America, the drop from a respectable, striving middle class life to economic oblivion can be blindingly fast. Tom realizes that “this life of ours is like flowing water and we’re all floating in the grip of something bigger that we can’t really control anyway.”

As Dubus reminds us, these stories of gain and loss and the resilience that life demands are too often obscured in dry economic reports about the rates of unemployment or poverty. As he depicts it here with a realism tinged with sensitivity, the pain is all too tangible. The path back often leads uphill, but it’s accessible to someone who embarks on it with an open heart.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 16, 2023

Such Kindness
by Andre Dubus III

  • Publication Date: April 2, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 1324076135
  • ISBN-13: 9781324076131