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House of Sand and Fog (1999)
Oprah's Book Club
There's an old saying : even a blind pig finds an acorn once in awhile. Based on what I've seen on the rest of her list, this is Oprah's acorn.
Before coming to America, Genob Sarhang Massoud Amir Behrani was a colonel in the Iranian Air Force. Forced to flee when the Shah fell, he escaped with his wife and two children and a couple hundred thousand dollars. Now resettled in the San Francisco area, but thus far unable to find work in the aerospace industry, Behrani works two full time jobs, on a road crew and as a convenience store clerk. This labor is necessary because the family's money is dwindling quickly, thanks to his wife's insistence on maintaining their old standard of living and the need to put on a sufficiently opulent facade to get his daughter safely married off--for instance, their apartment costs $3000 per month. Then one day, noticing an announcement of a tax auction in the newspaper, he decides to use their remaining savings to buy the house and then try to turn it around quickly for a profit.
Meanwhile, the house had previously belonged to Kathy Niccolo, a recovering alcoholic whose addict husband has run out on her. She works as an independent house cleaner, barely making ends meet and ignored the county tax bill because it should not have been assessed against her house. But now she has been evicted and, though Legal Aid lawyers help her to win a judgment from the county, they can not make Behrani give up the house, only compensate her. She also receives help from Sheriff Lester Burdon, whose marriage has lost it's passion, and the two become lovers. Together, and separately, they begin to take steps to force the Behranis out of their new home. Things get ugly.
This book is a page turner anyway, but it enveloped me in such a cloud of dread that I just kept reading faster and faster because I couldn't stand the thought of what was to come. I know some of the reviewers have said that Dubus evokes sympathy for all the characters; I strongly disagree. Colonel Behrani is a perfect example of why anti-immigration policies are insane. He works his tail off to provide a better life for his family and wants nothing from anyone except to be left alone to pursue the American Dream. He resembles a tragic hero, whose stubborn pride and unshakable faith in his dreams collude to help destroy him.
Kathy, on the other hand, even setting aside her addiction problems, has irresponsibly allowed legal events to get out of hand and now burns with a sense of false entitlement. Her lackadaisical approach to her job stands in stark contrast to Behrani's willingness to humble himself to take virtually any job. Her relationship with Lester results in his leaving a wife and two young children, a wife whose only failure is that Lester feels for her as he would towards a sister--hardly reason to destroy a family. And this step is merely Lester's first in a chain which becomes increasingly dubious, until his behavior can only be defined as pathological. By the end of the story I was begging Behrani to go and get a gun and put these two out of his misery.
Andre Dubus III is the son of one of America's greatest short story writers. His Dad having passed on, it's heartening to see him pick up the reigns. But please, have mercy on the reader; I could barely stand the last hundred pages of this book, I was so distraught. If you can withstand a story that is like watching a car accident in which one of your friends is driving, I heartily recommend this novel, but it's not for the faint of heart.
-OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB : House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
-EXCERPT : from House of Sand and Fog
-INTERVIEW : with Andre Dubus III (Larry Weissman, Bold Type)
-ESSAY : The muse returns to the Merrimack (Neil Miller, Boston Globe Magazine)
-READING GROUP GUIDE : for House of Sand and Fog (Random House)
-REVIEW : of House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus (Roxanne Farmanfarmaian, SF Chronicle)
-REVIEW : of House of Sand and Fog (Bill Sharp, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of House of Sand anf Fog (Greg Netzer, The Oregonian)
-REVIEW : of House of Sand and Fog (James William Brown, Book Page)