In Andre Dubus III’s latest book, Dirty Love, the best-selling author examines the weak and dark hinges of relationships amid a loose constellation of men and women who live in a small coastal town in New Hampshire, just north of Boston.
With these four finely drawn novella-length works, Dubus delves deeply into the underbelly moments of sex, love and intimacy, and the precise tensions that break couples apart. For example, in the opening novella, “Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed,” the narrative closely follows Mark Welch, a project manager and husband of 24 years, as he learns about his wife’s infidelities after hiring a private investigator to follow and videotape her and her lover. “He closes his eyes, but there’s the video again,” writes Dubus. “The picture is color and high-resolution. It is a bright spring day in a park in New Hampshire, and there are patches of snow on the ground. Mark Welch has not seen this in a while. The first weeks it came daily, but then, as things have become what they have, he’s stopped seeing it so often and its power has faded.”
With “Marla,” Dubus brings together the title character and Dennis, two overweight individuals who can’t quite love each other unconditionally. “The Bartender” traces the steamy extramarital affair of a poet/bartender during his wife’s pregnancy and birth of their son. And finally, in “Dirty Love,” the author takes on the perspective of an 18-year-old woman who gets caught up in the destructive undertow of an Internet scandal and seeks solace in her elderly great uncle and a war veteran she meets online.
Dirty Love is Dubus’ sixth book and second collection of stories. His two best-selling novels, House of Sand and Fog (1999) and The Garden of Last Days (2008), were adapted for the screen. His last book, Townie: A Memoir, chronicled his challenging relationship with his father, writer Andre Dubus, and the violence and poverty of his upbringing. “Writing fiction after Townie felt like slipping into a warm soapy bath after being beaten on a winter street,” Dubus says. “It was a lovely relief. The hardest part of writing memoir is to write about other people and invade their privacy. It felt really good to imagine the lives of others again.”
Dubus includes his father among his favorite writers. “He wrote with great compassion about all of the people who showed up under his pen,” says the author of his dad who passed away at age 62 from a heart attack. “I’m a sucker for that kind of writing.” Initially, when Dubus started to pursue a career as a writer, he didn’t want to share the same name as his famous literary father. “I worked hard to find another name,” he explains, “but I couldn’t put a fake name on it. We all get handed a deck of cards, and we’re supposed to play the deck of cards we’re dealt.” Before Dubus’ mother and father divorced, he remembers his father sequestering himself in a quiet room to write. “When I decided to become a writer, I didn’t feel like a loser,” says Dubus. “It was as valid as law school because I had seen my father write. It made sense to me.”
Like his father, Dubus is an expert at exploring the psychological crevices of his characters and the gritty realism of their broken lives. “I write deeply from the inside out rather than the outside in,” explains Dubus. “I write what haunts me—what we’re afraid of and what we celebrate.”
The father of two sons (ages 16 and 20) and a daughter who is 18, Dubus recognizes that with the title novella “Dirty Love,” he is exploring some of his own fears about young people these days. “The hyper-sexualization of young women disturbs me,” he says. “Sex has been degraded to a contact sport—and I think the Internet has a lot to do with it. Both of my sons are respectful toward women. When boys have sisters, they understand that she is a human being just like them.”
In regards to the art of fiction, Dubus circles the conversation back to the imagination and authentic characters and the Southern writer Eudora Welty, referring to what she wrote in the preface of her collected stories: “What I do in writing of characters is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.”
With this collection, Dubus certainly makes the proverbial jump as he deftly moves into the “skin” of his characters, letting the reader fully understand all of their strengths, weaknesses and failings. “I see that we’re all kinda weak,” adds Dubus. “It’s easy to mess up, and it breaks my heart in a loving way.”
S. Kirk Walsh has written for Guernica, the New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. She is at work on a novel.