Dubus anatomizes personal—especially sexual—relationships brilliantly in these loosely concatenated novellas.
At the center of the characters’ world are the small, economically depressed towns in Massachusetts where waiters, waitresses, bartenders and bankers live and move and have their being. To Dubus’ credit, he doesn’t feel he has to solve their personal problems and the intricate twists of their relationships. Instead, he chronicles what’s going on with sympathy but without any sense that he needs to rescue them. In the first narrative, we meet hapless Mark Welch, who’s recently found out his wife, Laura, is having an affair with a banker. Although occasionally picking up and hefting a piece of lead pipe, Mark ultimately finds himself powerless to change the circumstances of his life. In the second story, we follow Marla, a physically unprepossessing bank teller (yes, she works at the same bank as Laura’s lover) who feels her life slipping away from her. She begins a desultory affair with a 37-year-old engineer whose passions tend toward video games and keeping his house pathologically clean. The next story introduces us to Robert Doucette, bartender and poet manqué, who marries Althea, a sweet but reticent upholsterer. In the final months of Althea’s pregnancy, Robert has hot sex with Jackie, a waitress at the restaurant, and Althea finds this out and simultaneously goes into labor. The final narrative focuses on Devon, an 18-year-old waitress at the tavern where Robert works. To get away from an abusive father, she lives with a considerate great uncle (who harbors his own secrets), but she has to deal with the unintended consequences of an untoward sexual act that was disseminated through social media.
First-rate fiction by a dazzling talent.