To quote John Irving*:
“Human beings are remarkable – at what we can learn to live with. If we couldn’t get strong from what we lose, and what we miss, and what we want and can’t have, then we couldn’t ever get strong enough, could we?” The crux of Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love** is what we want and can’t have – in love and in life. The (long) short story collection is set just north of Boston, in an old mill town. Although the stories are only loosely related, they all inhabit the same small world where life isn’t fair and you never get what you want (even if you thought you wanted it). In “Listen Closely As Our Options Have Changed”, after 25 years of marriage, a man discovers his wife’s infidelity. He reacts in the least mature way possible. In “Marla”, a lonely, innocent young woman finally begins to date, but loses herself to please a man. In “The Bartender”, a bartender/poet marries the woman of his dreams only to be unfaithful to her within a year. In the title novella, “Dirty Love”, a teenage girl is haunted by a bad decision, but hopes to earn the respect of her great-uncle and a man she met online.
Dirty Love is complex, melancholy, and lovely. Dubus equally captures the hope of small town respectability and the dingier layers of reality lurking beneath it. As the title implies, there are bits of dirty love (i.e. sordid sex, if you’re mind leans that way) and there are bits of dirty love. The collection focuses on neither one nor the other. There is plenty of sex, but Dubus presents it in such a frank and forthright way that there is no romantic or erotic appeal. There is sex on a bar, on a restaurant carpet, in dingy, grey snow. It is captured on Facebook and by a jilted spouse. There is also love, but it’s unequal and at times unkind. To earn love, in this collection, you must censor who you are.
I mean, that’s just not how you make conversation, and, I’m sorry, but that’s why you never get asked out – you always say what you really think.
Or, if you’ve ‘found’ love, you hold onto it even if you’re desperately unhappy.
He could not say he did not feel grief, this dark empty corridor inside him he seemed to be wandering down alone, but what could he do with this other feeling? That after forty-three years of hearing nearly daily of his shortcomings, it was a welcome respite to be left alone? How could he say that since that sudden January evening of last year, what he felt now was a dumbstruck sense of freedom for which, daily, he felt the need to apologize?
Dirty Love explores the way love can comfort, confound, and ruin a person at the same time. The stories examine careless decisions and patterns of behavior – if you cheat once are you destined to cheat again? It is an interesting mix between hopeful and hopeless and, in what’s sure to irritate many, is incredibly ambiguous. There are no resolutions – no conclusions are reached – the characters are left with their thoughts and the reader never learns of their fate. Does infidelity ruin two respective marriages? Is it okay to settle for companionship and comfort over love? Can you survive if you do so? In an age where digital content never really goes away, can you overcome unsavory sexual images plastered on the internet? These questions can never be answered (within the context of the story), but they can be pondered. If you’re looking for a gritty, gloomy, intelligent and beautiful look at love, read this. 4.75/5.
(It’s hard for me to rate something as 5/5 when it so wholly saddened me. I do still sincerely recommend it, but it’s not lighthearted. It’s a complex, real, empathetic exploration of the darker side of love.)
Are you willing to read something that’ll depress you? (In this case, you should.) Do you read short stories? I find short fiction to be a bit of a lost art form. Everyone wants a full novel – in depth characterization and complicated plots – but I enjoy short vignettes of life, love, and the human condition. Or sci-fi. Whatever the case may be.
There are many bar scenes within the stories (one quarter of the book is devoted to the plight of a bartender), so I am recommending a drink. The drink that stands out in the story is a boilermaker, but it’s not something I enjoy (though it does follow the old drinking order adage), so I am substituting a Cardamom Rose Cocktail. Isn’t it pretty? Although I generally find alcohol to be as pretty as an airport, this one is rather aesthetically pleasing.
PS- This is my 250th post!
*Or, if you want to get less literary and more musical, to quote Arctic Monkeys: I go crazy ’cause here isn’t where I wanna be / And satisfaction feels like a distant memory / And I can’t help myself / All I wanna hear her say is “Are you mine?”.
**I won, FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, a contest. This particular bookish contest was hosted by Goodreads. My prize soothed the cynic in me.