‘Dirty Love’

DIRTY LOVE. By Andre Dubus III. W.W. Norton & Company. 304 pages. $25.95.

The people who populate Andre Dubus III’s new book, “Dirty Love,” all lead, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “lives of quiet desperation.” And sometimes, not so quiet.

The characters are normal people, like your neighbors perhaps. And that is where much of Dubus’ power comes from in his portraits. He makes you think about the normal lives of normal people and how normalcy is not all that it is cracked up to be.

“Dirty Love” is a collection of three short stories and a novella, somewhat distantly linked by characters that reappear in one of the other stories. All of the stories take place in a small New Hampshire town not far from Boston. Dubus, author of the National Book Award-nominated novel “House of Sand and Fog” and the acclaimed memoir “Townie,” writes unsentimentally, without romanticism.

His observations of the mundane are succinctly on target — as with the main character in the first story describing the man who is having an affair with his wife: “He is bald from his own hand, the way so many men are now, choosing to shave away thinning hair so as to appear younger, still virile, though the effect is coldly narcissistic.”

The stories are all about love: looking for it, finding it, losing it, throwing it away, running from it. But in all cases it is not quite enough. Love’s opposite, loneliness (not hate), is embroidered around every design of love. The events, the people, are in no way extraordinary. The tragedies are our everyday encounters. And, like real life, the stories are not finished. Dubus just finds an appropriate place to stop them.

The first story is about a man, Mark, who has found out that his wife, Laura, is cheating on him after hiring a detective to follow her. He watches the surveillance DVD of the lovers, trying to understand why the marriage he thought was so good evidently was not.

He lives with his mother in the garage he had remodeled for her, which is attached to the house where his wife still lives and where their paths still cross. Broken furniture is a constant reminder of their confrontation.

The second story is about a woman, Marla, a bank teller with no experience in love, but much in loneliness, who meets a man, Dennis, who often waits in line to come to her teller window. They don’t fall in love so much as crawl into it. A short time after moving in together, Marla begins finding a plethora of annoyances in Dennis’ behavior and wonders if it is all worth it. Meanwhile, all of her friends live lives as mostly passionless couples as an example to her that she is not sure she can reconcile.

The third story is about a bartender, Robert, who has had a somewhat successful career of womanizing by pretending to be a poet who is bartending. Success has eluded him in most other ways until he meets a woman, Althea, who seems to recognize the real poet in him, to see a man of value, and who is willing to give him more than a night of sex. Confronted with a life and future as husband and father, he has to decide what he will do.

The final story, a 128-page novella bearing the book’s title, is an exquisite piece of writing. The story is about a young woman, Devon, who drops out of high school after a cellphone sex video of her is posted online. Humiliated and unhappy at home with her constantly fighting parents, she goes to live with her great-uncle, Francis, an 81-year-old retired teacher who is haunted by his experiences during the Korean War.

They share great affection for one another. Francis attempts to help his great-niece obtain her GED and set her on a right course, while also trying to understand her and her milieu without wanting to know too much.

Devon works at a bar and is trolling for love on various fronts; none of the relationships are positive or healthy. Meanwhile, Francis is also examining his past, the loss of his wife, and their relationship with its own supply of conflict and unhappiness. He can give Devon moral support, but, in essence, he is powerless to help anyone.

Dubus’ writing has an honesty that is matter-of-fact, not brutal. He writes elegantly in the mood of a gray, New England autumn day, with a working-class realism and an underlying angst and melancholy.

There is no judgment on, and no condescension or sympathy toward, his characters. There is always a reconciling going on with the characters, what one wants versus what one gets. This is the private and everyday struggle of being a modern human and it may cause us to look at our neighbors differently, and they at us.

Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor in Charleston.