Dirty Love

  • Andrew Dubus III
  • W. W. Norton
  • 292 pp.
  • Reviewed by Patricia Smith
  • December 18, 2013

This quietly wrenching series of linked stories cuts to the heart of what it means to love and deceive and to keep trying.

Whenever I envision the author Andre Dubus III — and the stark, singular, hardscrabble world his work inhabits — I immediately think of fists. And I don’t mean the manicured, perfectly proportioned fists you see raised skyward in celebration or triumph, but fists that are scarred clench, knots of skinned knuckle, fists reddened and bloodied with pummel. Dubus’s prose always seems to be fighting back against what we expect — but we open the book anyway, and it’s never a question of whether we’ll be punched in the gut, but how soon, how hard and how long before we realize that he’s forcing us to look at our own ragged lives again, and there’s no pretty anywhere.

In Dirty Love, his quietly wrenching series of linked novellas, Dubus is at the damned truth again, this time lifting up romance so that we may have a good long glare at its writhing underbelly. The stories are connected in a manner that’s vaguely unsettling — a character who is extraneous in one tale stumbles, lovesick and resolute, into his or her own drama. The book’s four protagonists are linked the way sedans and semis are linked after a chain-reaction crash on a fog-choked interstate: they are strangers, intimately tangled, with nothing but questions about how they got there.

There’s Mark, so enmeshed in his personal purgatory that it hurts to focus on him clearly; Mark  who’s trying to piece together some semblance of a norm day-to-day after discovering that his unsung wife of 25 years is having an affair she has no intention of ending. In this opening novella, it is Mark who sets the book’s tone of rootlessness and resolve; he wants his wife back, but isn’t sure why. She’s achingly close, but unable and unwilling to stop her sweaty afternoon acrobatics. He too falls into the warm clutches of someone else, and he flails for justification, trying to make the hollow mean something. But now he’s become more like his wife, the woman “who had taken a burning torch and held its flame to the dry wood of their house ... now he has taken his own torch and held it there too.”

There’s Robert, a bartender with a roving eye, convinced that poetry is his soul’s engine. What he needs is a muse, a nurturing spirit to spark his sleeping stanzas, and suddenly he’s a duty-bound newlywed, in love because he should be: “No one had ever looked at him like that and it stirred in him a low, animal calling, a central pull to the dark depth of her quiet womanhood, a nest in which to sink and blossom his own muse.”

Like just about everyone else in Dirty Love, Robert is buffeted about by that insistent drumbeat in his chest — love conquers all love conquers all love conquers all — but he forgets that sometimes love conquers hope, leaving some pretty impressive pandemonium in its wake. Robert deceives his perfect and pregnant misty-eyed bride. He hurtles toward a heat-without-reason carnal deceit and a tragic reckoning too raw and unwieldy for any poem.

Marla, frumpy and hesitant, lives a cloistered life with her cat and a gaggle of babbling coworkers who all seem to be in various fulfilling phases of romance. Finally, to her surprise, love happens — but almost immediately she feels compressed and put upon, subtly manipulated by the big cuddly bear of a man she assumed would save her. This is touchy territory for the millions of women who wonder about the validity of their own happiness, who consider walking away from a picture-book life they craved so restlessly. And yes, there’s the drum — love conquers all love conquers all love conquers all. ...

Devon is the brooding adolescent heroine of the title novella. Obsessively wired into the brutal beats of rap music and harrowed by a publicly humiliating misstep in her past, she is all suppressed strength and flailing direction. Her computer screen — where she projects outward and explores the possibilities of voice and body — is a link to the world and finally to the cleansing specter of faraway love with an Iraq war vet wrestling with demons of his own. She balances the possibility of love against its actuality, away from her aged and widowed uncle, who is slowly learning to love her out loud.

Love is so huge in these pages that it’s practically another character, a slick and utterly unreliable narrator, the wily antagonist who beckons these flawed souls closer until they’re centered directly under the anvil. Like some wicked deity addicted to irony, Dubus crafts his characters in the image of us all and infuses them with a doomed optimism when the mood strikes him. Craving settles like grit over everything. With steely smiles, they love in tortured utterances and ill-conceived betrayals, they fall and fall and somehow rise, but when they rise their bruises are deep and dangerous. And familiar.

Dubus’s unerring blade-edged prose cuts right to the heart of the heart. Closing the book, we rush to scrub off that grit, needing to remember what pulses beneath. After all, falling in love is something we keep doing and doing.

Patricia Smith’s six books of poetry includeBlood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and her latest,Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. Her work has appeared in Poetry,The Paris Review and Tin House, as well as Best American Poetry, Best American EssaysandBest American Mystery Stories. She a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

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