House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I knew going in that "House of Sand and Fog" would be hard-to-put down novel that was vastly depressing since I had seen the 2003 film and still think it's one of the best movies of this decade. But after reading the book, Andre Dubus III makes not only his three main characters (Col. Behrani, Kathy Nicola and Lester Burdon) indelible, he also makes the suburbs of San Francisco and Kathy's Pontiac Bonneville also important characters. Dubos's descriptions of the town are so precise: "We rode quietly through Corona (where the titular house is located on Bisgrove St)into San Bruno, where he (Lester) turned north just before the El Camino Real Highway. Under the gray sky we passed one-story houses with small grass lawns. Behind them was the highway, and I could see cars and long trucks going south for towns like Hillsborough, San Carlos, Menlo Park, Los Altos, and Sunnyvale..." The descriptions are so accurate I thought Corona was a real town, but, alas, it is the stand-in for Pacifica. But no matter, if the town is a stand-in, the emotions in this book are not. As a side note, check out this link to see a picture of the house they used in the movie, which is now for sale.
Col. Behrani used to be a high ranking Air Force officer in Iran in the days of the Shah, but after his family's exile, he knows he can never reclaim his past glory. He moves his wife, son and daughter to Berkeley, where Soriya will have a chance to marry well. They rent an apartment that costs them over $4,000 a month and Behrani works two jobs so that Soriya will find a suitable husband. She does and now Behrani must do something so that his 14-year-old son, Esmail can go to college and the family can be comfortable. Torn by class, money, culture and appearances, Behrani wants to do the best thing for his family and that's buying an auctioned house for $45,000 in Corona on Bisgrove St. where Kathy Nicola used to live only days before.
Kathy was a hard character to like and I did try. She a recovered drug/alcohol addict who is a cleaning lady. She's in her mid-thirties, goes braless and shoeless on a regular basis and is also a manipulator who lets fear take over her life. Her husband, Nick, left her eight months before and she has ignored notices coming from San Mateo County telling her she still owes taxes on the house (SM County thought her house was a business property and accidentally taxed her and both Kathy and Nick got their paperwork notorized saying it wasn't, but somehow SM County didn't get the message).She gets evicted by Deputy Sherriff Burdon, who immediately takes a liking to her. He helps her move and later sets her up in a motel. But what's really going on with him? He's married with two kids and thinks he loves Kathy because she's exciting and lives on the edge.
As a result of their relationship, which quickly becomes a sexual affair, Kathy starts drinking again and Lester threatens the Behranis and later places them all under house arrest. Lester spirals out of control and because of desparate circumstances, we see a tragic ending for all involved.
Dubus's writing is superb, although sometimes his narrative could have been cut back a little, especially when he described Lester's dream life and his past run-ins with Hispanic bullies. But because of Dubos's meticulous work with backstory, we know why these characters act as crazy as they do. Behrani isn't perfect, either. He hits his wife and his violence is seething under the surface. Still, he was for me the book's most sympathetic character.
I also loved the great lines Dubos gave us such as when Behani leaves Kathy's lawyer's office, "They view my face, my suit, the valise under my arm, and as I return their eyes back to them, they look away as if I have come to collect something they cannot pay." I also love Kathy's line, "I felt as connected to the ground as an old newspaper blowing in the street."
Throughout the book the house, the fog, the ocean and nature as a whole plays a large part in the narrative. I love books that make me take out my Atlas and discover a new city. "House of Sand and Fog" did that for me and it also made me wish I could conjure up images and sensory details as fluidly in my writing like Andre Dubos III.
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