Sunday, September 23, 2018

the last book I read

House Of Sand And Fog by Andre Dubus III.

Kathy Nicolo has been having a hard time. She's struggled to overcome addictions to alcohol and cocaine, largely acquired as a result of her association with her husband Nick, who, having got sober at the same time, promptly upped and left her. She's been getting by on a succession of cleaning jobs in the San Francisco area, but as you can imagine they don't bring in a massive amount. Her one saving grace is the house she lives in, a nice place on a hill with a view of the Bay, left to her by her late father. At least no-one's going to take that away from her.

Well. Here's a valuable life lesson for you, kids: open official-looking post sent to your address, even if it doesn't have your name on it. Ignore it, as Kathy does, and you may find that the legal wheels have ground on to a point where a simple explanatory phone call can't set everything right. It turns out the local county have been pursuing someone for unpaid business tax and have attached the claim, erroneously, to Kathy's address. And now, because no-one's told them about their mistake, the police are at the door, the house is being compulsorily repossessed and is going to be auctioned off the next day. This is all a bit awkward, as Kathy's just got out of the shower and isn't really in a position to move all her stuff. Luckily, Deputy Lester Burdon, despite helping to facilitate her forcible removal from her house, turns out to have some Good Samaritan tendencies and hooks her up with a lawyer and a self-storage facility to accommodate her stuff while everything gets sorted out.

It's not going to be a simple matter, though, as it's too late to stop the auction going ahead, and the house is purchased (for a fraction of its actual market value) by Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian Army under the command of the former Shah who was obliged to flee the country with his family when the Shah was deposed and the current theocratic regime took over. Sadly having been a high-ranking army officer doesn't amount to a hill of beans in downtown San Francisco, and Behrani is obliged to take a series of menial jobs in order to make ends meet, all the while concealing the exact nature of his jobs from his wife and children by putting on a respectable shirt and tie every morning before leaving the house, only to get changed into more blue-collar clobber before starting work.

So this property auction is Behrani's chance to finally get a leg-up into respectable business by selling the property on at what's bound to be a considerable profit. But first he's going to luxuriate in his change in fortunes a bit, move the family in and have a few renovations done. And why not? All legal and above board, and the misfortunes of the previous owner are neither his fault nor his concern.

Meanwhile, Kathy is doing some sensible things, and some not-so-sensible things. The sensible things include getting her lawyer to straighten things out with the county, get them to admit their mistake and agree to pursue some sort of settlement with the new owner and get Kathy her house back. The not-so-sensible stuff includes going round for a snoop at the house, stepping on a plank with some nails in (debris from the ongoing renovations) and having to be disinfected, patched up and sent on her way by the colonel's wife, and also contriving to have her path cross with that of Lester Burdon again and getting drawn into a furtive relationship, largely motel-based at first but then involving the two of them camping out down by a river in an old fishing shack borrowed from a friend of Lester's, with much making of sweet sweet love down by the riverside while sipping on river-cooled beers. Yes, Kathy isn't really supposed to be drinking, but - hey - what could possibly go wrong?

It soon becomes clear that while the county are prepared to buy the house back from Behrani at the price he paid for it, he - understandably - wants something a lot nearer the full market value. It also becomes clear that Lester has fallen for Kathy in a big way and is even going to leave his wife and kids for her. Or is he? While he's away apparently breaking the news to them, Kathy has an attack of paranoia that he'll have a last-minute change of mind, goes into town for a couple of drinks, gets absolutely smashed, discovers Lester's gun under the seat of the car, drives to her old house, parks on the drive and attempts to shoot herself. On being rescued by Behrani and taken indoors, she immediately attempts to take a drug overdose in the bath, is foiled by the quick action of the colonel's wife and is put to bed to sleep the whole thing off. At which point Lester turns up and sees the colonel and his wife manhandling a semi-conscious Kathy, and it all Kicks Off in a Big Way. He smashes his way into the house and takes the Behrani family hostage, locking them in the bathroom overnight.

The trouble with impromptu kidnapping and extortion attempts of this sort, though, is that you really need to think through some of the consequences. How is Lester going to convince Behrani to sell the house back to the county so Kathy can have it back? He can't just march him into the property office with a gun to his head, after all. What's Behrani's incentive to co-operate? What's he getting in return? And if it's the safe return of his wife and teenage son, for instance, what's to stop him changing his mind once they're safely handed back over?

With these loopholes unresolved, Lester ploughs on anyway and leaves a still-drowsy Kathy in the house with Mrs. Behrani while he takes the colonel and his son Esmail downtown to get a cheque from the county. But teenage boys are hot-headed creatures and Esmail grabs Lester's gun (not loaded, as it happens) out of his belt and is promptly served with a hot lead sandwich by the local cops. On learning of his son's demise at the hospital and Lester's detention by the police, Behrani returns home to be confronted by Kathy, the instigator (in his eyes) of all the unravelling of his grand plans for his family, leaving him with nothing to live for.

You can, broadly, see where this is going. I won't spoil it for you by describing the ending in detail, but suffice it to say it doesn't go well for anyone. One of the interesting things about the book is having your natural optimistic inclinations that things are going to work out all right for at least some of the protagonists methodically closed down one by one by those same people's own actions and the relentless logic of the plot. If you like happy endings and life-affirming crap of that nature then it's safe to say this will be a fairly massive downer.

For a book with as relentlessly bleak an ending to work it's got to make you care about, and be interested in, the characters on the way, and the key thing here is that you need to be able to sympathise with both Kathy and Behrani, while recognising their character flaws that will eventually
drive them both towards tragedy. Kathy is basically a good person but a bit flaky, compromised by her addictions and drawn to men of suspect character, while Behrani is a man of honour and loyalty to those he loves but unbending and principled to a counter-productive degree, and moreover because of his cultural upbringing vexed at being crossed by a woman, especially one with a propensity for things like alcohol and extra-marital sex.

If the book has a villain it's Lester Burdon, not a cartoonish bad guy but a man with fatal weaknesses and an inclination to impulsive behaviour born out of his internal suspicion that he is (despite his choice of profession) actually a coward. It is he who gets Kathy back on the sauce, he who carelessly leaves his gun in the car, he who hoofs down the Behranis' door and thereby initiates everyone's ordeal which results in the tragic climax.

So: it's very good, it succeeds in making you sympathise with both major characters, it's definitely not a barrel of laughs, and there is (as with Drowning Ruth) just a suspicion of the plausibility of some of it being questionable if you stepped away and thought about it for a second. It's a deeper and more serious novel than the other Dubus featured on this list some ten years ago, Bluesman.

House Of Sand And Fog was filmed in 2003, a fairly heavyweight production starring Jennifer Connolly as Kathy (I'd envisaged her shorter and blonder) and Ben Kingsley as Behrani, a pretty perfect piece of casting I'd say.

More importantly, and I promise you this is a coincidence, House Of Sand And Fog was the Oprah's Book Club selection for November 2000, immediately succeeding its immediate predecessor on this list, Drowning Ruth. Coincidence? OR IS IT? Well, yes.

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