In Dirty Love, Andre Dubus III returns to the people his father, short story writer Andre Dubus, Sr., wrote about: the working men and women of Massachusetts, waitresses and bank tellers, bartenders and realtors, bankers and mid-level businessmen. These are people inhabiting a world still wreathed in tobacco smoke and lubricated, often heavily, with alcohol.
They toil for the pleasure of the paying customer. Most are without hope for the present or future, surviving in the moment. Those harboring dreams are deluding themselves and by extension, those around them.
Dirty Love’s four linked novellas examine the ways we fail one another in love, in all the old-fashioned ways: lies, adultery, criticism, betrayals, booze. And now, in the newer, sometimes more painful ways, through social media.
The first story, “Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed”, describes Mark Welch, a successful project manager. He has a large, well-appointed home, an attached apartment where he has ensconced his aged mother, and two grown children. He has been married for a quarter-century to Laura, a realtor and avid runner. Laura is quiet, a loner whose lack of effusiveness means she doesn’t sell as many homes as other realtors, consequently earning less, but Mark’s salary more than compensates.
At the story’s core is Mark’s management method. Early in his career, on a drive with an upper-level manager, he’s encouraged to utilize his naturally mean nature, to micromanage others, to cultivate his urge to “sit at the head of the conference table, not alongside the others… he had earned himself the reputation as an immensely productive hardass…” Over the years he learns “…to manage with edge and force, never abusively but through the use of incriminating details he’d simply point out to an underperforming team member, a clear and undeniable record of each and every one of his failures.”
Welch fails to leave this management style at the office. The gravity of this miscalculation doesn’t hit him until he learns Laura is conducting a serious affair. Years of her husband’s harsh criticisms have worn her down. Now 55, this lonely woman wants uncomplicated, nonjudgmental love, and has searched it out. Mark Welch is forced to reconsider everything he had thought true in himself, his wife, and their marriage.
In the next novella, “Marla”, a young, overweight bank teller has a good job, a nice apartment, and close girlfriends. Yet she longs for a boyfriend. When Dennis Munson starts coming regularly to her teller window, she doesn’t refuse him.
They begin dating, but Dennis will only see action movies. Marla is disappointed but keeps quiet. When Dennis invites her to move in to his home, he makes no room for her possessions, storing her furniture in the garage. He’s a fanatic house cleaner who expects the same of her, literally mopping the floor as dinner cooks. Yet his public persona is friendly and easygoing: he gets along well with her girlfriends, their boyfriends and husbands, so the women are all thrilled for her. None realize the outwardly genial mien masks private shallowness.
Marla, who finally has what she thought she wanted, finds herself longing for her formerly solitary life. She tries confiding in her friend, the long-married Nancy, but finds neither sympathy nor empathy. “’It took me a year to get used to living with Carl. I mean, what do men do anyway?... Sex for them is in the sports-and-recreation category. You can’t live with a man and not be lonely.”’
Robert Doucette is “The Bartender” of the title, a would-be poet who is afraid to write. A long-ago exchange with an egotistical faculty member crushed both his confidence and any nascent talent. Now, Doucette is that most pathetic species of failed writer: the failed poet.
Doucette hasn’t admitted this to himself when his future wife walks into the bar he’s tending. Instead, he’s certain this quietly determined woman, Althea, is his muse. Althea’s silence is not like Laura Welch’s; Althea is self-contained, not cowed. The couple has very little money, but soon marry and move in to one of the tiny, one-room cabins reserved for seasonal workers at the seaside restaurant where Robert works.
Althea is quietly overjoyed by new of pregnancy, but Robert struggles to hide his fears over impending fatherhood. In the morning he tries and fails to write as Althea works—she is a furniture upholsterer—or reads. At night he tends bar, falling into an easy, flirtatious camaraderie with the waitstaff. He becomes too friendly with Jackie, the mischievous, pretty head waitress; the results are disastrous.
The final novella, “Dirty Love”, takes on social media’s potentially destructive impact on people’s lives. The protagonist, teenager Devon Brandt, is trying to recover after a sexually explicit video appears on the internet against her will. She has fled her family home to live with her widowed great-uncle, Francis. The narrative moves between the two.
After the internet incident, Devon leaves high school. Francis, a retired high school teacher, is encouraging her to get a General Equivalency Diploma and attend college. He has no idea about the internet post; he knows his nephew, Devon’s father, Charlie, is an alcoholic whose marriage to Devon’s mother Marie is a sham. He loves his great-niece and wants the best for her, even if her behavior mystifies him.
Devon is far too damaged to focus. Instead, she holds down two jobs, working as a hotel maid and bussing tables at the restaurant where Robert Doucette, whom she loathes, bartends.
Mistrustful, hurt, enraged, Devon is deeply lodged in the social media network, carrying her “iEverything” everywhere, her earbuds in constantly, rap blaring into her ears as often as she can get away with it. She much prefers Chatroulette to sleep and spends her nights on her laptop. She lands on Hollis, an Iraq war veteran now home in Texas, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Hollis lives with his parents, subsisiting on government disability checks. These two strangers strike up a “relationship”.
Francis, who is elderly, realizes Devon’s late-night behaviors are unhealthy but lacks the technical sophistication to comprehend how truly dangerous they are. This, in combination with her silence, makes him unable to reach her. Nearing the end of life, childless, suddenly a widower, he’s looking backward with a mixture of regret, resignation, and pride. His outwardly happy marriage to the staunch Beth was marred, like the Welch’s, by criticism, this time on Beth’s part. Her constant jabs sent Francis to the liquor bottle; he managed to quit, though Beth’s needling never lost its edge, until her sudden death brought a welcome silence, which Francis cannot admit to a soul.
Andre Dubus III’s people—bewildered, even as they destroy those they love—represent all of us, for who among us hasn’t said or done something inexplicable to a loved one, to a relationship, ultimately, to ourselves? The difference is, most of us are unable to render our difficulties in keenly observed prose that manages to be plainspoken yet illuminated with winter’s thin sun. Dirty Love is neither a happy nor pretty book; it is, however, a beautiful book.