Like many tragedies, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, are full of opportunities in which the characters could halt their trajectories towards disaster. If they paused to consider the consequences of their actions, for instance. If they stopped to think about whether their motivations are entirely rational, for another example. But then, the characters in tragedies are terribly flawed. They’re incapable of pausing to reflect. (Except for Hamlet obviously, whose flaw what they he paused too much.) Because the characters in House of Sand and Fog are stubborn, have addictions and intractable attachments, unresolved childhood issues, anger, and more, this book is a relentless march towards something awful.
It all begins with a bureaucratic mistake. It’s a difficult problem, but fixable. A house is auctioned off because the county believes the owners owe a business tax. Within days, the house is sold for a pittance to an Iranian immigrant who is looking to make a new nest egg for for his family. Both parties are in the right. The county messed up. All the original owner, Kathy Nicolo, wants is her house back. So, when the county offers to rescind the sale and give Massoud Amir Behrani back his money, there’s a possibility that the mistake could be fixed. But Massoud bought the house in good faith and wants the full market value for the house. Kathy doesn’t have that kind of money, of course. So, impasse.
What makes everything worse is Kathy’s anger over the injustice of the whole thing and Massoud’s proud stubbornness. House of Sand and Fog moves back and forth between Kathy and Massoud’s point of view for the first two thirds of the book, immersing us in both sets of emotional baggage. Each chapter shows us why neither character takes one of the many outs they are given by other characters. I had my heart in my mouth for most of the book because I knew it would end in blood.
What struck me most about House of Sand and Fog is its focus on male fragility. After Kathy’s side of the story gets eclipsed by her cop boyfriend, Lester’s, we have two men fighting each other who both are desperate to maintain their masculine power. Massoud was formerly a colonel in the Iranian Air Force under the Shah. He was a powerful man from a patriarchal society. He’s used to everyone listening to him and obeying him. Lester is a deputy sheriff who is also used to having people obey him. Neither man seems particularly comfortable in their power. Their authority was granted by uniforms and legal standing. Because their authority was given, it can be taken away; both men are terrified of losing their power. When Massoud’s wife, Naderah, challenges her, he hits her. When Lester is challenged, he pulls his gun on the Behranis and worse. Two hair-trigger men in conflict with each other is a recipe for disaster.
House of Sand and Fog is a terribly good story, fully Shakespearean at times. It’s hard to witness what these characters do to each other. It definitely will make readers want to shout into the book to get Kathy or Massoud to pause. Still, there’s something fascinating in watching a train wreck about to happen. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s the pleasure I take in seeing moving pieces fall into place. Maybe it’s watching someone else making worse mistakes than I ever would. Whatever it is, House of Sand and Fog delivers it in spades.