Boston Herald

‘House of Sand and Fog’ author returns with story of ‘Kindness’


If you ask the hard-luck narrator of Andre Dubus III’s new novel what he’s accomplish­ed in 54 years, he’ll mention the carpentry business he owned and the houses he built, one of which he and his family called home in happier times.

“All my life I’ve been a man who works,” Tom Lowe says. But the last half-decade has been terrible for him, a calamitous stretch that emptied his wallet, ended his marriage and estranged him from his son. He’s so desperate that he’s about to commit an ill-considered crime.

Like previous novels by the Massachuse­tts author, “Such Kindness” examines eternal themes through challenges facing blue-collar New Englanders. It’s a big-hearted book and, like one of Tom’s buildings, it has a dependable frame: likable characters, relatable dilemmas, strong prose. But Dubus’ evident desire to write a novel that helps heal a country wounded by opioid addiction, class warfare and other ills results in some schematic, clumsy scenes.

Everything changed for Tom when he fell from a roof and broke both hips. Surgery didn’t alleviate his pain, and for a time, he was hooked on opioids. When his prescripti­ons expired, he “sent my young son Drew out into the cold to buy me a baggie of Os.” Tom beat the habit, but 19-year-old Drew didn’t forgive his dad.

Meanwhile, the bank took Tom’s house and his marriage

“Such Kindness”

by Andre Dubus III Norton, $29.95 collapsed. Today, Tom lives alone in a tiny apartment and drinks a lot of vodka. His underemplo­yed neighbors play video games and smoke pot all day.

Along with a friend, single mother Trina, Tom hatches a scheme. Looking for pre-approved credit cards and blank checks, they steal trash from a banker in a misbegotte­n adventure that plunges those around Tom into trouble, adding to the mistakes for which he ought to atone.

The author of “House of Sand and Fog” is a discerning storytelle­r. He empathizes with Tom’s plight while holding him to account for poor choices. His sentences are stout, and he finds poetry amid the mundane, such as a descriptio­n of classical music, “its rising violins often making me feel like the world is a mystery and I’ve left it behind.”

But Dubus’ pious message that we should all be kinder includes mawkish set pieces in which strangers have meaningful conversati­ons about parenting and spout timeless verities. He italicizes key words, lest we miss points about “thoughtful­ness” and “unspeakabl­e gifts.”

He also pens improbable plot developmen­ts, some of which suggest the involvemen­t of a higher power. When Tom needs to get to a distant hospital to see a family member, he starts walking, knowing his hips will soon give out. On the way, he’s bitten by a dog, whose owner drives him to the hospital he needed to visit in the first place.

“Such Kindness” is often solid, a novel that deserves praise for its nuanced depiction of working-class people. But Dubus’heavyhande­dness prevents this from being one of his better books.


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