by Andre Dubus III
292 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $25.95
If folklorists are to be believed, the postnuptial tradition obliging the bridegroom to carry his bride over the threshold of their first home has less to do with ensuring the couple’s good luck and more to do with maintaining the bride’s good name. Apparently the custom spread from ancient Rome throughout medieval Europe as a politically fraught pantomime of chastity’s death at the marriage altar: The new wife, presumably reluctant to relinquish her virginity, had to be physically transported into her new matrimonial setting by her impatient husband.
And so a gesture cherished by millions for its sweetness and frivolity is revealed to have roots in a darker pageantry. Assuming we’re sticking with the original symbology, newlyweds who cross the threshold in this manner aren’t simply walking into a new house, or even into a new social or familial arrangement. They’re also walking into an incredibly daunting meshwork of married-folk dialectics: conquest and submission, selfhood and union, lust and shame, rejoicing and regret. Congratulations, you two. Today is the first day of the rest of your disorientation.
In “Dirty Love,” the new and staggeringly good collection of four not-quite-novella-length stories by Andre Dubus III, we’re presented with characters so disoriented by love they honestly can’t tell whether they’re looking for a way into or a way out of it. Every one of them is standing in a doorway, eyeing that threshold with trepidation. A lonely, overweight woman who had resigned herself to a solitary life glides into a lavish New Year’s Eve party on the arm of a man whose devotion she first finds astounding, then unnerving. A husband takes note of how long it’s been since he last walked through the front door of his own house, which he bitterly vacated upon learning of his long-neglected wife’s affair. A philandering bartender who has no business entering the hospital room of someone he has grievously wronged is driven, by an epiphany, to do so anyway. A troubled high school dropout contemplates slipping out the back door from the only safe haven she can claim, the ghost-haunted home of her recently widowed great-uncle, and into a future she has constructed primarily from text messages and Skype sessions.
Each of them is caught between desperately wanting to believe in love’s heady promise and — just as desperately — wanting to escape its awesome gravity. In “The Bartender,” a newly married man named Robert careens between these two poles over the course of mere minutes. Shortly after he finishes scrubbing off the scent of an adulterous tryst at his bathroom sink, his chest begins to constrict at the thought of being found out by his pregnant wife, and of her walking out on him. But he’s surprised when the horrible image gives way to a muted sense of relief, suggesting as it does “a reprieve from husbandhood and fatherhood and all of their weight.” Robert’s promises to himself and others are as false and calculating as the sensitive-poet persona he projects to get women into bed, but he’s self-aware enough to know that there’s a better way to live, and that he could live that way if he just made the effort. Later, after deceiving his lover, he berates himself: “He didn’t like lying to Jackie; he should not lie to at least somebody.”
Dubus is in his mid-50s now, but his self-assured, no-nonsense prose has had an undeniably old-school vibe going back all the way to his best-selling 1999 novel, “House of Sand and Fog.” Reading these stories is like visiting a classic steakhouse where the coolly professional waiters don’t hold your cultivated taste for high-concept haute cuisine against you, but rather decide to remind you what you’ve been missing by giving you one of the best dining experiences you’ve ever had. His sentences are like windows of tempered glass: They seem sturdier and more transparent than so many others out there. They’re not hard-boiled, exactly, but in a literary-fiction environment where coyness and irony enjoy so much currency, they might scan that way for some. A man senses an attractive woman’s attention to him as he works alongside her “like good news in a letter he wasn’t opening.” When they make love for the first time, he approaches the act with delicacy, “as if he were trying on new clothes he didn’t want to spoil in case they had to be returned.”
These are sentences that, like the waiters at Peter Luger, know exactly what their job is and perform it with consummate grace and quiet pride. Dubus can home in more quickly and efficiently on a character’s inner life than any writer I’ve encountered in recent memory. Consider his description of Marla, an unattached 29-year-old woman who has sadly grown accustomed to getting up and walking away from her circle of married friends whenever the conversation turns to parenting. “Something seemed to come into the air between them that wasn’t there just a few moments before; the light in their eyes became more genuine somehow, and they nodded their heads not out of habit or good manners, but because they really did know what the other was talking about.” When Marla’s luck changes and she unexpectedly finds a lover, she purchases birth control for the first time: “As she stepped out onto the sunlit sidewalk she felt part of the bigger picture somehow, more of a citizen of the world she lived in.”
Just as Marla is inching toward the doorway that might lead her to erotic fulfillment and social acceptance, Mark, the main character in another of these stories, is exiting through the same. His wife’s infidelity has landed in his highly structured world like a live hand grenade. His humiliation is multilayered: Being cuckolded is one thing, but having to move into the garage apartment with your mother, then having to skip a week of work in order to get a handle on your emotions when you’ve never even called in sick before, well, that’s enough to make Mark wonder if he’s really the take-charge alpha male he fancies himself to be, or if he has suddenly become, to his horror, “a man things happened to.”
This fear — of agency robbed, of future choices curtailed — is the force pulling so many of Dubus’s characters away from scary, unknowable, dirty love and back toward the familiar baseline of self. It’s why Devon, the damaged teenager of the book’s title story, prefers the randomly selected degradations that come with nightly visits to chatroulette.com over getting back together with the only boy who ever treated her with respect. It’s also why she prefers listening to gangsta rap through headphones over talking and listening to her dear and gentle Uncle Francis, whom she cares for more than anyone else in the world, but whose loving guidance has begun to feel like a harness.
Figures who are completely marginal in one story reappear as central characters of other stories, a bit of trickery I was ready to dismiss as a Hollywood-baiting gimmick until Dubus, with his unusual gift for stretching the reader’s sympathy, convinced me of his true aim. By the end of “Dirty Love,” I understood what he was hoping to convey with these brief walk-ons and subtle cameos. That woman with whom we just rode up in the elevator? That man who smiled at us in the Starbucks line? All those people we may say hello to every day, but whom we can’t really claim to “know”? Dubus is asking us never to forget that they love and hurt and feel every bit as intensely as we do. He’s saying, I think, that we have a sacred responsibility to listen to their stories, to try to understand their fears and weaknesses, and to grant them absolution in the event that nobody else seems willing. He’s reminding us that we’re related to them. Maybe not by blood. But definitely by a kind of marriage.