The House of Sand and Fog By Andre Dubus III
The house of Sand and Fog, was our subject at yesterday’s book club gathering. One thing I find interesting about fog, is that it doesn’t just exist hanging over the ocean. You can find it right here at Wildflower Farm. Because fog sweeps in, and makes it hard to see clearly sometimes everywhere. Even here. It can cause literal short sightedness.
Short sightedness can happen to anyone. It has historically happened to me more than once. It is almost always how every major mistake in life happens. Making decisions when things that are far off are invisible… Or rendered so by the fog of our lives… I loved the way the author used fog all through the book.
I wanted to like the characters, but if I am brutally honest I felt an urge to kick 3 of them in the head through the entire book because they all insisted on being short sighted and extremist in their reactions. They also seemed unwilling to view clearly the situation they found themselves in choosing to be angry at each other rather than at the one truly in error.
Kathy, inherited a beach house by the ocean. She is a clean drug addict who married and moved across the country with her husband who eventually left her. Then the township, foreclosed on her house for lack of payment of taxes that she didn’t in fact owe due to a clerical error. Mr. Behrani, comes from Iran, and had to escape when the Shah fell. He took his family here to the USA to start over again. He is a well intentioned guy just trying to get ahead. And every so often though he feels bad, he has made a hobby of beating his wife. (I never thought I could actually feel anything but loathing for a wife beater. But somehow Mr. Dubus, has done the impossible. I actually pity Mr. Behrani.) When the town auctions off Kathy’s house he purchases it completely unaware of the circumstances by which the town comes by ownership of the property. And just like that he buys himself problems no one needs, thinking he is saving his family from poverty in America, thinking they are finally getting ahead…. He doesn’t know the town came to Kathy’s house not so very long after her marriage collapsed and she was in a rather extreme depression. He doesn’t know they threw her out of the house without warning. Or rather with lots of warning letters which in her depression she ignored and didn’t ever open. What follows, is Kathy, blaming the Behrani family for all her problems. Turning on them considering them thieves, and making every illegal and legal act to get her house back from them, completely ignoring the fact the town took her house. The Behranis bought it from the town and her beef is with the town. All she sees though is them living in her house building on widow’s walks. Changing it forever.
Kathy, meets Lester Burden when he throws her out of her house. He is the policeman who comes to help the town take it from her. He is none too stable himself. He likes to be a hero, has suffered bullying as a kid, and suffers from small penis syndrome which is not uncommon for men to suffer from. it’s a bit like small dog syndrome. He is a bit of an ankle biter so to speak. He is also a family pet. Having a family at home 2 children he claims to love and a wife he is bored of. Kathy’s passion about the issue of her house, her rightiousness, and her victimization in all this causes him to become deeply attracted to her. It isn’t really her he is attracted to though. And somehow while she is trying to get back what belongs to her, she is able to let the fog obscure the fact that Lester Burdon, belongs to someone else. She ignores that fact and they are soon having an affair fueled by booze, rage about the house, and a lot of racism. If I had to read them refer to the Behrani’s as the arabs one more time I may have stuck the book in my wood stove to burn. I have little tolerance for that level of lack of wokeness. I have little patience for such ignorance and white supremacist out look. it made it very hard to identify with her. Not just for me but for every member of the book club. Then there is the hypocrisy of trying to get back what is hers while taking what belongs to someone else…. The hypocrisy of thing made my skin crawl.
The Behranis, are interesting too. They are living in this fancy building they can’t afford. Mr. Behrani is working so many jobs such as picking up trash from along the highway while they pretend to be wealthy so their daughter can marry the right man from the right family with the right status from their old country. Yet he always seems so proud of his son for acting like an American kid. Why is that fine for his son but not for his daughter? They have just married her off, and now they can stop pretending. So he buys a house at auction with the intent to sell it for several times more than he bought it for. he is ambitious to rebuild some of his old wealth in this new place. He isn’t aware he is purchasing stolen property. His family tries to be happy in the house he gets busy showing it to potential buyers and he gets harassed by Kathy and Lester. He feels very threatened by them and takes steps to get them to sod off. He reports Lester’s deportation threats and repeatedly throws Kathy off the property often leaving bruises on her body in the process. It isn’t necessary to do that and it isn’t acceptable for a man to be that forceful with a woman. But culturally speaking it isn’t just her. It is also his wife who soon learns of the issue. It causes some conflict and he beats her. But she is lucky because back home women often endured much more frequent abuse that could turn lethal so this wasn’t that bad but still he feels bad about it after he does it. And then he does it again… Obviously he doesn’t feel that bad about it. Often doing it right in front of his son. Teaching him something ugly that needs to not be continueing into the next generation. He too is shortsighted at times. To think you can get something at that price tag for example and there is nothing wrong or attached to it… Things cost what they do for reasons.
And so Mr. Behrani and the couple I often see as very white trash, clash over a house completely ignoring who is truly at fault for everyone’s suffering. Who made the actual error. Wanting to see the worst in each other because anger and ignorance clouded their perceptions. By the time this story is over, some will have left this life others will be stuck in one moment they won’t be able to exit from, trapped, and everyone will pay far more than the house is worth. For the Behranis, everything they did was to leave something for their children to build on when they go. For Kathy, it was about keeping what she was left, her last bastion of stability…. There are no winners in this story. Just a truly sad collection of losers. People humanly muddling through a situation they can’t see the long game on. People making bad choices. People viewing each other as other due to their cultural and skin color and language differences.
I think Kathy, ended up in the right place for her… Somewhere where she could live in silence where she could finally hear her own voice in her head when she thinks rather than the judgement of others. The judgement she clearly sought to escape down a booze bottle and through the abuse of substances. I know what that is like. I come from a very loving family but also a very judgemental family. They have your whole life decided for you the day you are born. And the slightest deviation of the plan, making any personal decisions meets with unbelievable criticism. I love my family they just want what they view as best for me. I understand that. But they lose sight that I too have a right to control my destiny and that my view of a successful life may differ from theirs. It has gotten better over the years some, but when I was young it was very bad for a long time. So I can understand as I remember the exact day, I finally heard my own voice in my own head for the first time in over a decade. I had to go as far as Vienna Austria. It was in the spring of my third year there, that I finally heard my own voice and learned to recognize it again over the sound of their voices in my thoughts, their well intentioned criticisms. Kathy, clearly needed to have a conversation with herself more than with the judgement of anyone else. She had been so battered by it already. So where she ended up, was where she needed to be away where she could talk to herself and build a new relationship with herself. Lester, also ended up where he belonged. He didn’t bend rules. He broke them. he abused and bullied others. He abandoned his kids. There is nothing redeemable about him from what I could tell.
As for the Behranis…. The tragedy was almost more than I could take. And in the end, to some extent they were the architects of their own out come… The only true and complete victim in this story is Mrs. Behrani. The thing I hated most about this book is that we never hear from her. The only one able to have compassion for everyone. And yet, it makes sense we heard nothing from her. As culturally speaking she was inconsequential in the story. She simply had all the answers. The fog never stands up to the light compassion shines through it. It is the only sure path forward through the shifting sands when the fog gets heavy.
There is so much I could get into with this book. It is loaded with things to explore. It is a lesson to all of us and a question. One we should all be asking ourselves in every situation we find ourselves in. Who do we want to be? Because our impact to the situation is what makes us who we are. I both loved the book and hated it. it is one of the heaviest reads I think I have ever read… I couldn’t quite get into any of the characters hard as I tried. I also couldn’t escape them either. For the book club mental health became a bit of a theme. And one thing we all absolutely loved was the absolute honest light the author wrote about both sides with. Not allowing himself to paint either of them as a victim of the mess that whey were all wading through. He also clearly loved all of his characters deeply. he tried very hard not to vilify them either. There were several reasonably fair ways out of the nightmare they constructed together. Yet, none of them was able to see it. Too caught up in themselves to see beyond themselves to the bigger picture. This is one of the books I have loved reading the most even while hating it. Don’t ask me how that works cuz my answer is somewhere lost in the fog and I can’t see far enough to offer you an explanation for how that can be.
A personal note of thanx to Mr. Dubus III, the subject matter is the American story. A side of it we rarely stop and think about. Right now, the war in Afganistan has ended and a new wave of immigrants are making their way here to start a new life. This book inspired me to list the B&B with a charity that provides them temporary housing for when they first arrive. Because we can help each other, or we can work against each other and the one path forward that beats back the fog is the path of compassion. So I have as a result of this book chosen to walk that path if my help can be of any value to anyone who needs it. Reading this book, I can truly say and it is a very odd thing to actually say about a book, has made me a better person for having read it. Only the best books have that kind of power.
We had questions after reading this beautiful and tragic story. For answers there really would only be one source. The author. We wonder things about what inspired this project. Where did the idea come from? How did he come up with this? And we have so many other questions. We wonder what he thinks of his own characters. We wonder if he misses them after finishing the writing. Were there actually real people that in part even loosely inspired this work of fiction that hits too close to home. I would just love to know more about his process as I myself try to write a bit on occasion… Though I am hardly brilliant in my own writing and any guidance I can get would mean so very much to me. I wish I could thank him in Wildflower fashion for the story that inspired me to list the B&B with an agency in order to help other people. For example, an apple pie and some fresh eggs from the chickens and perhaps some of what grows in the garden. I feel like what I paid for this book simply wasn’t enough. I don’t know what would be enough as this is such a valuable teaching book on humanity and humanism… There are very few authors that I feel like I care to meet. This one is one I really would love to sit down with.