The title of Andre Dubus III’s collection “Dirty Love” suggests some titillating reading, and sex does tend to dominate the lives of the people in these four lightly connected stories. One man discovers his wife has been cheating. Another man is doing the cheating. A woman finds an ultimately disappointing romance at the brink of old-maidhood. And a teenage girl tries to shoulder past the humiliation of a sex act that’s gone public. Intimate stuff, yes. A turn-on, no. When Dubus says “dirty,” he means “messy” — the problematic, often un-sexy after-effects of chasing bliss.
Is there anything new to be done with these plots? “Such an old and predictable story, ageless really, like some virus that affects some marriages and not others,” thinks Mark, the affluent New Hampshire man who’s discovered his wife’s infidelity. Dubus has committed his career to enlivening these kinds of melodramas. He’s tinkered with stock characters in novels like “House of Sand and Fog” (the unwelcome outsider) and “The Garden of Last Days” (the stripper with a heart of gold). Dubus can salvage this well-worn stuff by writing with a winning candor and intelligence about relationships, as when Mark first suspects his wife after she touches him only a slightly bit differently. Elsewhere, Dubus smartly captures the awkwardness of the first days of cohabitation and the initial spark of teenage emotional defiance.
But like a star quarterback who tends to drop snaps, Dubus can make dispiriting missteps. Mark’s cuckolded trip to a Home Depot is rank with obvious symbolism: “He looks down into his orange cart and stares at tools and substances of repair.” When Marla, the introverted heroine of one story, first starts thinking of having baby, she has a dream about … having a baby. The closing title novella is so thickened with Christ imagery and redemption arcs that it undercuts how well Dubus has drawn the character of Devon, the shamed teenager. Dubus seems unconvinced that the reader will understand these predicaments as predicaments unless he spells them out.
Dubus is no scolding moralizer about relationships: Each of these stories closes on ambiguous notes. But there’s something foresquare about Dubus’ sensibility in “Dirty Love,” pushing back against the postwar American writers who have complicated these themes. When Devon’s caretaker grandfather — a noble man with a secret, to call out another type — hears that the young woman needs to be “validated,” he scoffs. “Like a parking ticket. The language of today becoming increasingly mechanical and cold, the machines taking over one word at a time.” Dubus is on the grandfather’s side: “Dirty Love” is a semi-successful and old-fashioned plea for improvement, empathizing with our messy, even dirty, lives, and written in the hope we can do better.
Mark Athitakis is a book reviewer in Phoenix.