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'House of Sand and Fog': America noir


"House of Sand and Fog" by Andre Dubus III. W.W. Norton. 365 pages. $25.95.

House of Sand and Fog" is the work of a writer who is the real thing, and whatever mistakes have been made in this book, it nevertheless establishes him as a novelist of great talent. Of course, trying to describe something as illusive as a particular talent is like trying to describe a bird in flight. It is better to see it in action.

More than anything else, this is a novel about the meeting of people who never should have had anything to do with each other. When they meet, fate is allowed to do what fate loves best: to cause trouble.

In fact, the entire book seems like a mixture of classical tragedy perfectly imbued with film noir, and at its heart this novel is about the collision of the stern beliefs of a newly arrived immigrant with modern Americans whose lives have been devastated by a lack of a sense of purpose.

The characters in "House of Sand and Fog" meet through a bureaucratic mistake: a house is sold for back taxes, but the tax bureaucrats have made a mistake and managed to sell the wrong place. The victim of this mistake is a young woman named Kathy Nicolo.

The sale of her house seems to be the low point in a number of bad events on a film noir slide downward: she has been a coke addict, gone through rehabilitation, married the wrong man, who abandons her after they move to California.

Her house is auctioned off. The buyer of it is Colonel Behrani, an emigrant from the Iran of the Shah. In the United States, he is trying to keep up appearances while working as a "Garbage soldier," cleaning up trash along the side of the highway. The colonel is a man of great dignity, great discipline and, of course, like every other immigrant, he thinks that America is a place where you can make a fortune. He chooses real estate.

The third part of this train wreck waiting to happen is Lester, a sheriff's deputy who comes to evict Kathy when her house is to be sold. Like all good film noir character, he sees Kathy and falls like ... well, like a fistful of .45 ammunition. Then everyone spirals downward.

The real difficulty with all of this is that the author doesn't know to stop when he's ahead, and the last third of the book degenerates into soap opera (two suicide attempts, a murder-suicide, a shoot-out in which an innocent dies, etc.).

Still, there is a lot here that is right on the money. In fact, "House of Sand and Fog" is almost like something out of the world of film noir: so close to being right, yet so far away. But the fact of the matter is that the author's talent is so large and real that one takes away from this book not the moments when too much has happened so much as a sense of those earlier scenes when the author works with all the skill of the master he is surely becoming.

Craig Nova is the author of nine novels, including "The Good Son," "Tornado Alley," and most recently "The Universal Donor," which Norton is publishing in paper this month. His work has been translated into nine languages. He has received many prizes and awards, including an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He is currently at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of "The Good Son."

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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