Andre Dubus III's Tales Of 'Dirty Love'

Oct 3, 2013

Note: This segment contains content that may not be appropriate for younger listeners.

Andre Dubus III is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel “House of Sand And Fog” and memoir “Townie.”

In his new collection of novellas, “Dirty Love,” he tells stories of love tainted and gone wrong: a bartender cheats on his pregnant wife, a program manager finds out his wife is having an affair.

And in the title story, a young woman takes refuge with her great uncle after a picture of her performing a sexual act goes online.

He talks to Here & Now about the collection.

Book Excerpt: ‘Dirty Love’

By Andre Dubus III

From the novella “Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed”

That’s how she’d always explained it to Mark anyway, that she needed time to herself, that she never should have gone into real estate because it’s a job that forces her to talk to people, but that’s also why, Mark would tell her, she’s been so successful at it; prospective buyers can sense just how little she cares whether they like the property or not, that what she really wants to do is be done with this walk-through, pull on her sweats and Nikes, and run away from them all; this is the softest sell possible and so she sells more than most, her lack of charm a quality Mark had come to trust for he always knew where he stood with her. Other women, women like Anna Harrison, seemed to smile on reflex, as if this were something they were taught to do as young girls—be nice, be pretty, nice is pretty—and so you never knew if a woman was genuinely pleased with something you’d said or done, or not. But Laura only smiled when she felt like it, her eyes turning down at the corners, so it was a gift to them all when she did, a gift to Frank Harrison Jr. too, who must have charmed her into doing that at the gym, the place he drove his Audi coupe to every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, pulling out behind the bank between 4:33 and 4:39 each time, driving through town along the river, past the brick post office and the old Whittier Hotel, past the music shop and Pedro Diego’s Mexican restaurant and the insurance office above Valhouli’s Barbers that has been there since Mark’s father was a boy and he would go there for a nickel haircut and years later, when he was husband to Dorothy and father to Claire and young Mark, he’d own two of the abandoned mills near Lafayette Square, one he sold for a profit, the other he lost so much money on he spent fewer and fewer nights at home, going instead to the bars of Railroad Square till he was hardly ever home at all. After a while, only a year or two, it seemed, he was no longer Bill Welch, property owner and entrepreneur, but Welchy, who drank boilermakers with off-duty cops and men from the mills, Welchy who bought dawn breakfasts for old waitresses and young runaways, Welchy who ran up tabs he couldn’t pay and who died on a moonless night in February in the backseat of a ’63 Impala that belonged to a man who had gone through the dead drunk’s pockets and called the Welches’ house at two-fifteen in the morning. Mark Welch was still a boy then, but he remembers his mother’s voice on the phone in the hallway outside his bedroom. He remembers the crack of light beneath his door like some unnatural fire he would never escape. “Are you sure? William Welch?” There was some kind of wire being pulled through her words, one that was about to snap. But then she said, “Thank you. Thank you very much for calling.” And Mark could hear the phone being set carefully into its cradle. He heard little else. Only his own heartbeat; for the first time it was no longer in his chest but in his head, something steady he listened to between his ears even as the police car pulled in front of the house, even as the front door opened and closed twice, even as he began to hear the nearly calm voice of his mother telling Mrs. Steinberg from next door to let them sleep until they wake up, let the poor children sleep.

But there was no sleeping. There were his mother’s words on the phone from earlier, and there was his father’s name, and there was Mark Welch’s heart having moved up to his head where, all these years later, he’d heard it once again as he watched those videos he’d paid an investigator from Boston to film, heard it as he walked by Anna Harrison on the sidewalk, heard it as he followed her husband’s white coupe three cars behind as Frank Harrison Jr. drove past the car dealerships on River Street, the machine shops and boarded-up Dairy Queen, past the Exxon station and Dunkin’ Donuts, then across the highway overpass for the turn to the gymnasium on the hill where he’d met and wooed the apparently restless and unhappy Laura Murphy Welch.


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Andre Dubus III has a new collection of novellas out, and it's often stomach-clenching. In fact, a warning: Our conversation about it is not appropriate for children and some sensibilities. It is set in a lovely seaside town, the kind people travel to for a day at the beach. But Andre takes us inside the bedrooms and afterhours barrooms of the people who live and work there, and it's not pretty.

Mark discovers his wife's affair and descends into insane stalking. Marla, an overweight young woman, finally finds a lover, but he's a loser. Robert betrays his pregnant wife on every available surface in the bar he tends. And in the heartbreaking title story, a teenager named Devon - a waitress at that bar - becomes an outcast after performing the sex act that all of the girls are doing. But in her case, someone takes a picture, and it goes online. Now she sees that the men who should be protecting her, but instead objectify her.

ANDRE DUBUS III: (Reading) That's what Doucette made her feel: dirty. She was 18. Didn't that stop him, even a little? But she knew better than that. There were all those men around the world who perked up as soon as they saw her. There were the fathers and husbands in the bar and restaurant, their eyes taking her in like a nasty memo to themselves. They were the boys and men behind steering wheels as she walked down the street, their hungry eyes on her in the side-view mirror.

YOUNG: Devon hardens, becomes the girl everyone says she is, and finds refuge at an online chat site where images of strangers spin like a roulette wheel. And she's just one of several damaged characters in Andre Dubus III's new book "Dirty Love." He's also author of "House of Sand and Fog" and the memoir "Townie," and he joins us in the studio. Welcome.

III: Thank you, Robin. It's great to be here.

YOUNG: Boy, the story about Devon in particular, it's sickening. You know, you want so badly to have someone stand up for this young girl. And she represents all these young girls who - their parents are maybe fighting and divorced or working and not paying attention to them...

III: Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: ...and they're just - how do you know these girls?

III: Well, I have an 18-year-old daughter. And, you know, as parents know, when you've got a child, you end up having about 20 kids, because you get to be sort of a co-parent of their friends. I've - you know, traveling this country, I've been really haunted by how sexualized girls have gotten. I've seen a real change.

You know, I mean, women have always been objectified in my life, but, I mean, shopping for my daughter when she was eight, I couldn't buy a pair of shorts without it riding on the butt. I mean, you can't tell me that's not a sexual sign. And I agree with you, I don't think anyone's at the till. I don't think anyone's watching these kids. And...

YOUNG: Or there's a force that somehow has been unleashed, and people feel they can't control. I mean, a lot more of the young people are doing certain things, than, you know, perhaps their parents know, or maybe their parents do know. But then it's just the one girl, it's almost like a board game, and you step on the wrong square. That one girl, someone snaps the picture, and suddenly, you're the dirty one. And they almost self-corrode in your story.

III: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I guess we can't talk about any of this without talking about technology. I was at a college somewhere in Upstate New York, and two professors were talking about - one of them was, like, a dorm parent and - no, it was a high school. It was a private high school. And he heard the kids talking and laughing on the other side of the door. And he went in, and he found them talking to a young woman who was masturbating in front of five guys. And he had them turn it off, and gave them a talk.

And I said, excuse me. Who - you know, I am so ignorant of the digital world. And he said, well, it's a website called Chatroulette. You hit a button - and I'd heard about this from my daughter and her friends. I heard that it existed - and from my sons, I'd heard. So I went on. And I was just - you'd see a middle-aged man looking to see who's coming in. And it's really, on one level, really poignant and moving. You saw a lot - I saw a lot of loneliness and a lot of solitude.

YOUNG: And that's we...

III: Yeah.

YOUNG: And we see that in Devon. There's always been that kind of need to single out the person that's going to be the cast out. And...

III: Scapegoating.

YOUNG: Yeah. And many people know you're the son of the acclaimed author Andre Dubus.

III: Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: You're Andre Dubus III.

III: Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: But he left when you were 10. In your memoir "Townie," you tell of growing up - one of four children - sort of scrapping your way through house parties and street fights. So is there something you've always wanted to say about that girl, Devon, you know, maybe from your life?

III: Well, you know, I've noticed that I've always identified with outsiders. And, you know, I'm an educated, white, middle-aged male, but I grew up, you know, went to 14 schools, was never with an in-crowd. I've always identified far more with those standing outside the window looking in than those in the middle of the party.

YOUNG: And you saw them. What were some of the jobs that you worked that informed some of these stories?

III: Well, I did all sorts of things, man. I was a house cleaner. I worked as an assistant bounty hunter and private investigator and, you know, carpentry, roofing. I worked the door in a bar. I actually started writing when I was about 21-and-a-half, and realized early on that I prefer to write in the morning because I like - the Irish writer Edna O'Brien said she likes to go from the dream world to the dream world. And I'm the same way, in that regard. And so I took night jobs or - and I purposely took jobs that I knew would not make me any money or get me any status or get me promotion or any more responsibility, you know, "a real job," quote, unquote.

And so I ended up in these jobs - and I'd worked a long time as a bartender in my 20s. And I met some really beautiful people in that work, but I met a lot of self-destructive people. My own view about the restaurant-bar scene is - not only does it draw a lot of active alcoholics, but it also draws people sort of on the edge, who are in-between in their lives and trying to figure out what's next, if they ever do. And they actually break my heart, in a lot of ways.

YOUNG: Well, as some of these characters do. They're - they just - off the page, you can just smell suntan oil mixed with beer and cigarette smoke and kind of a sweatiness.

III: Yeah.

YOUNG: But it's heartbreaking.

III: Yeah. You know, I mean, here's the thing. I think, in our culture, we're really neurotic in a lot of ways. One way we're deeply neurotic because we expect to be happy.

This whole notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I think it's really messed us up. Older cultures that we all come from, they all know that life is hard and beautiful, and it's not a staircase to some successful beach where you're happy all the time. It's full of trouble, and it's full of pain. It's full of joy, and it's full of ecstasy, and it all happens all at once. And so I don't see these people, in their trouble, as unusual.


III: You know, I actually think you just scratch the surface, all of us are always in some kind of trouble. It could be cancer. It could be a horrible divorce. It could be on and on. And that's normal.

YOUNG: It could be that a picture went online when you were 17.

III: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: Just tell us: Do you know what happens to Devon?

III: I think - well, without giving too much away in the story, you know, she leaves town and heads into the arms of a man she doesn't know. And I think that's not going to go well at all. But I - she does strike me as a strong and resilient young woman. And I - and like, frankly, most of the women I know - now I think about this. I'm having this insight right in front of you.

I think most of the women I - I don't know any woman I love and respect who hasn't had a tough time getting there. I think she's going to make it, but it's going to be a hard road. And she's probably not going to blossom till she's 41.

YOUNG: Andre Dubus III. His latest collection of stories is called "Dirty Love." Thanks so much.

III: Thank you, Robin. It was great.


TORI AMOS: (Singing) Innocence targeted. What God is this? Wish that she had one more day. There at the seaside, 5th of December, we chased the tide as her treasures were gathered. I had to laugh as she gave sand a bath.

YOUNG: "Seaside" by Tori Amos.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.