House of Sand and Fog

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"And that's what I wanted: obliteration. Decimation. Just an instant smear of me right out of all this rising and falling and nothing changing that feels like living."

In the beginning there was Kathy Nicolo.

She is an addict who has been through a drug rehabilitation program. She has been flying straight for a while. She cleans houses for a modest living. She spends most of her free time watching movies, one after the other. All is going okay until she has a dispute with the county over the house her father left her and her brother. They claim she owes back taxes. She goes down to the county offices and gets it "sorted out", but she continues to get letters from the county office which she promptly throws away without opening.

Anybody who has ever dealt with any level of bureaucracy knows that issues are not always "sorted out" the first time. The problem is that Kathy doesn't have much experience dealing with anything. She avoids, evades, and hits the escape hatch any time anything gets too real. The next thing she knows the cops are on her doorstep explaining to her that she has an order to vacate. Her property has been seized.

She meets Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon as he is escorting her off her property. She can tell by the way he is looking at her that he is attracted to her. She is pretty, waifish, and vulnerable. He has a wife and two kids, but every time he makes love with his wife it feels like he is making out with his sister. They are best friends, comfortable with each other, and like a lot of people he interprets that to mean the spark is gone from the marriage.

Kathy, as he soon finds out, is much more than a spark. She is more like a full on raging forest fire.

The county sells her property quickly. This is where Colonel Massoud Behrani enters the plot. He and his family were lucky to escape Iran when the Shah is ousted. He was high enough up in the government to see his name appear on the blacklists. His wife has never really forgiven him for the circumstances that have made them immigrants in America. They did escape with some money, but much of that has been eaten up by keeping up appearances with the community of Persians in California. Behrani works two crappy jobs, one picking up trash along the highways and the other as a late night convenience clerk. Both jobs that are difficult to hire Americans to do at any price.

"For our excess we lost everything."

It is no wonder to me that immigrants excel in the United States. They take chances. They work hard. They don't expect anything for nothing. Behrani is no exception and when Kathy's house comes up for auction he takes the last of their savings and buys the house. As it turns out he is also lucky that only two other bidders show up and he buys the house for a fraction of the value. Now I say lucky, but I always feel we make our own luck. Luck never just happens, you have to give luck a chance to reward you. In his mind he can already see the real estate empire that this first house will help finance.

Kathy and Lester hit it off. "I felt a little better as I pulled the T-shirt over my head and caught the faint scent of vomit and gun oil. Me and Lester." They are screwing like bunnies and when they are together everything is fine, but when they are apart it becomes readily apparent that their relationship is built out of sand. He starts thinking about how easily she fell into bed with him. She starts thinking he is going to go back to his wife and kids.

Kathy really hates the idea of Colonel Behrani and his family in HER house. The county admits it made a mistake, but the sales transaction with Behrani is legal. He would have to agree to sell the house back to the county for what he paid for it.

His visions of a hefty profit float up into the fog.

Kathy isn't adhering to the program. "And I knew to any of my counselors back East my life wouldn't look very manageable; I was drinking again, and smoking; I was sleeping with a man who'd just left his family, all while I was supposed to be getting back the house I'd somehow lost. I knew they would call the drinking a slip, the smoking a crutch, the love making 'sex as medication,' and the house fiasco a disaster my lack of recovery had invited upon itself, and on me." Embracing those addictions is making her unstable world spin faster while her mind spins slower.

It is an unusual situation with all parties being victims of an unresolvable issue with the county. Given what we know about Behrani he isn't who Kathy thinks he is. Kathy isn't really who he thinks she is either. As the plot advances we also find out that Lester isn't who anyone thinks he is either. Of course, Kathy is like nitroglycerin in his head.

It always amazes me how one little mistake can lead to such complete chaos. Andre Dubus III keeps adding snakes to the plot until it is all so twisted together that only the sword of Alexander the Great will untie it. Dubus reveals all the characters, even the second tier characters, with such depth that I felt like I know these people. My mind even now is still weighing all the ramifications from everyone's decisions as if this is an ongoing crisis that is still yet to be resolved.

Andre Dubus has done his homework on this very American novel.

I enjoyed the real estate aspects of the plot. I also liked the way that Dubus has us ride along with each character giving us free access to their inner thoughts, their hopes, and desires. He also shows how many chances people get to turn their life around. The many hands that are outstretched to keep them from falling too far. Sometimes it just doesn't matter how much help someone receives they continue to make the same bad decisions until tragedy overtakes them sometimes with equally tragic results for others.

They made a movie out of this book in 2003. I've not seen the film. I, as usual, skipped the film until I had a chance to read the book. From what I've read about the movie they significantly changed the ending, leaving some very important and pivotal scenes in the book out of the plot of the movie. I'm not discouraged because I know that films are a different entity from the book that inspired them. I will report back after watching the movie.

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When Kathy, a young recovering alcoholic recently separated from her husband, fails to a open a series of tax letters that have been sent to her in error, the State of California seizes the house she and her brother have inherited from her father. The State sells the house at auction to Behrani, a former Iranian Air Force officer. Unable to parley his skills into a job in aerospace in the US, the house represents an entry into real estate and a passport to the future of his family and his own version of the American Dream. For Kathy, its loss is the last of a series of insults life has dealt her. When she becomes involved with a married policeman who takes up her cause, the stage is set for a gut-wrenching tragedy.

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