Fiction: “Dirty Love” by Andre Dubus III

dirty loveMerry Christmas! And if you don’t celebrate, Happy Monday or whatever!

Dirty Love was another book during one of my many library binges this year. For reals, I know I bitch about the Yarmouth library (a lot, and I only feel slightly bad about it), but I’ve never left the library empty-handed. In fact, I usually take out six books at a time, and then only finish two during the first three week period. Then I renew the other four, and at the end of the renewal period at least one book is going back unread and the other two are going back late.

I’m pretty sure that the only reason I picked this off the shelf is because of the title, so, four for you, Andre Dubus III, you go Andre Dubus III!

Andre Dubus III also wrote The House of Sand and Fog, which was turned into an Oscar-nominated film that I have not watched, starring Sir Ben Kingsley and Shoreh Agdashloo, whose name I love to pronounce. Also, she’s fantastic. However, I have not read The House of Sand and Fog, so I have no idea what it’s about.

Fun Fact!: I went into my office a few weeks ago to get a book for my mother to read, and I found a copy of The House of Sand and Fog on my bookcase. I have no idea where that came from, or when I purchased it. Although now that I think about it, I may have taken it from the remnants of the huge yard sale we did this summer … but regardless, while it wasn’t as weird as that time my Dad found six Silence of the Lambs posters that he claims I purchased and I have no memory of doing so, it is still a tad weird.

SO ANYWAY. Dirty Love is a series of short stories-slash-novellas, and each deals with a romantic relationship and the downsides of all of them. It’s so heartwarming! Merry Christmas, everyone!

The first story, “Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed,” tells the story of Mark Welch’s divorce. Mark is a project manager, and he’s been married to Laura for a long time. They divorce because Laura has fallen in love with Frank Harrison, Jr., but Mark is still living in the apartment over the garage.

From what I recall (because remember, I read this in April, it’s been a while, I said I was going to get better at this, clearly I lied), the meat of this story comes from the character deep dive we do on Mark. The story is told from Mark’s perspective, which means the salient points flow through Mark’s head, kind of like a stream of consciousness. So it starts off with the current problem Mark’s dealing with, but then he’ll remember something from years before, like this gem of advice from his former mentor:

“Your problem is you’ve subscribed to the wrong motivational theory. That’s what big sisters do. They believe everyone has their heart in the right place at the right time and all you have to do is point them in the right direction. Wrong. People are naturally fucking lazy. They’d rather lie around all day eating, fucking, and scratching their balls. That’s why pricks are needed, my friend. It’s called micromanagement and it works.” [p. 22]

And Mark took that work advice to heart, and let it bleed into his personal life. HOO BOY, did HE make good choices!

Here’s what I’ve learned from micromanagers: they are GREAT at getting involved with everyone else’s shit, but they are COMPLETELY INCAPABLE of managing their own. And Mark Welch is an excellent example of that in literary form.

And he used that micromanage-ey trait when he first met Laura, as his realtor:

But there was something so accepting about this woman [Laura] who had sold him his condo that he was soon inviting her into it, the sun low over the water. Mark distracted by the gold in her hair, her deep green eyes, her high cheekbones and straight clavicle, and he liked how she wanted to hear about him, his job and his boyhood, but not like she was interrogating him or sizing him up. There was a calm to her, a passivity he could only do one thing with – to take it in his two hands and begin to shape, then manage her as he saw fit. [p. 79-80]

Let me be clear: Mark is an asshole. But – like with many assholes – sometimes, what they say has a ring of truth to them. For instance:

[…] the sounds of a television in an open window somewhere, baseball again, the Red Sox, and he was a good athlete in high school, fast enough to play in college though he did not for he knew he was not good enough to play behind that so what was the point? It wasn’t practical. It wasn’t the logical thing to do, and he is so tired of logic, so tired of managing every last detail of each and every day, and how sweet to let go of the wheel and let someone else drive […] [p. 49]

As someone who, for the longest time, kept her focus on the practical choices and rarely deviated down a spontaneous, frivolous path, that paragraph stung, a bit. However, my Type A control won’t even let me think of passing the wheel to someone else. (When Beyoncé asked all the women who’re independent to throw our hands up at her, you bet your ass I threw mine the highest and hardest. Not that she could see, but still)

And then, going back to Mark’s assholery (which Word recognizes as a real word, go me!), there’s this moment where his lover, Lisa, pisses him off about something and he grabs her wrist:

“Fuck you.” A flame flares up behind his left eye, the back of her knuckles sliding away like a snake’s head, and he is on his feet, the plastic chair sailing out away from them, the clatter of it on the neighbor’s roof before falling though Mark’s eyes are not on it but on Lisa Schena’s, her wrist locked between his squeezing fingers.

“What gives you the right to do that, huh? What?

“Let go of me.” Laura’s words, not this woman’s, but they come from her mouth like some memorized lines from a script written before any of them were born. [p. 68-69]

YES ALL WOMEN. #MeToo

The second story in the book is “Marla.” It’s about Marla. Marla’s a curvy, overweight woman who is slightly obsessive about her body image (as all curvy women can be). She’s never dated before, and she works at a bank. She meets Dennis, who’s got a bit of a dad bod, I guess? My notes from when I finished the book note that Dennis is also “curvy”, so I’m going to go with it. Dennis is a fictional character, what’s he gonna do, yell at me for using a feminine descriptor? Go fuck yourself, Dennis.

Anyway, Dennis flirts with Marla at the bank and she agrees to go out on a date with him. And they keep dating, to the point where she moves into his apartment. The problem in this story is that Marla can feel herself slipping away from herself slowly as she goes through the relationship. First, Dennis always showers immediately after sex, which gives Marla a bit of a complex. She moves into his apartment, and finds herself always watching the movies that Dennis wants to watch. Dennis gets up from the table after dinner and immediately washes the dishes, like, he can’t wait five minutes to talk before those dishes need to be cleaned. Marla talks to her friends about the relationship, and she’s confused; after all, this is her first one. At first it’s nice that he dotes on her and she feels that they’re in love, but at the same time, she recognizes that he is subsuming her sense of self, and she’s letting it happen, because they’re in a relationship.

Remember when I said I was independent? While I may be curvy and neurotic like Marla, and yes, I haven’t really dated, but as nice as the dude is? This story will never happen to Alaina. And yes, this story did hit a bit close to home at times.

MOVING ON. Third story, “The Bartender.” I didn’t take many notes on this one. The titular bartender is Robert Doucette. He’s married to Althea, who is expecting their first child. Robert bartends at an oceanfront hotel (I’m gonna call it the Seafarer, but I’m 83% sure I’m wrong). He flirts with the waitresses, but he does so as a front; he considers himself a failed poet. He went to college for an English degree, and hoped to write poetry. He considers his bartending a failure, and he keeps searching for people to appreciate him.

He remembers advice a former teacher had given him about a poem Robert had written, in which the poem deals directly with Robert’s adolescence and his hopes of escaping his hometown:

That poet-in-residence had told Robert he should start looking at other people instead of expecting everyone to look at him. [p. 155]

So obviously, Robert totally learned his lesson.

Over the summer, Robert has an affair with Jackie, a waitress at the bar. Althea discovers the affair and gets so upset (I think she may also fall?) that she suffers a placental abruption. Robert races to the hospital to learn that the baby is born early.

The final story is also the titular story, “Dirty Love.” “Dirty Love” concerns itself with Devon, an 18-year-old high school dropout who lives with her Uncle Francis. She dropped out of high school when a video of her blowing her boyfriend was posted on the internet and her father found out.

Uncle Francis is in his 80s and a widower. He’s a former teacher, and also a former drunk. His wife, Beth, loved him dearly but also nagged and complained at him and his drinking in an attempt to force him to be better. He tries to tutor Devon in-between her shifts as a maid at the Seafarer in the hopes of getting her to college, but Devon doesn’t have any ambition to that.

At night, Devon wades through the misery found on ChatRoulette (though it may have been named something different in the book), and meets Hollis. They chat and have conversations, and she tries to hide her late-night conversations from Francis because she doesn’t think he’ll understand.

At one point, Charlie, Devon’s father, visits Francis and wants to have Devon come home. But Francis doesn’t want that to happen, because Devon’s being there has given Francis something to do in his retirement, and he feels useful for the first time in a long while.

“Dirty Love” ends with hope. I couldn’t spoil it if I wanted to, because I can’t recall the exact ending, but I know Devon leaves Francis with the intent of escaping her roots. Whether that will end up like Robert’s attempt or not is left up to the reader. But speaking of independence, this quote from Francis stuck with me:

[…] for if he’s learned nothing in all his years he’s learned that, that from our first gasps for air till our last, we simply want to be left alone to do what we want to do when we want to do it, and because this is rarely the case we crave oblivion in any way it presents its dark, sweet self to us. [p. 287]

You, me, and Greta Garbo, Francis.

Overall, I liked the four stories; I thought they were very well-written, and offered four different perspectives on romantic love and the pitfalls therein. I’m a little proud of myself for finding this after Valentine’s Day, because this feels like something I’d try to read around that time and really depress myself; but I didn’t, so, inadvertent progress, or something.

Merry Christmas!

Grade for Dirty Love: 2.5 stars

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