Picture in your mind a newly excavated rare artifact. Maybe it looks like something Indiana Jones would be seeking. When it's first discovered, it just looks like an ordinary object surrounded by dirt. However, when the dirt is peeled away, layer by layer, a priceless gem is revealed.
This was how I viewed The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. On the surface this novel appears to be a disagreement over a dumpy little house. So what? Take it to Judge Judy you might be thinking. However, as you turn the pages, you dig deeper, lifting the layers until you realize you've found one hell of a story.
As the novel opens, we see Genob Sarhang Massoud Amir Behrani at work in Northern California. Back in his native Iran, he was a great colonel. However, when he fled his home land for the safety of America, he left his status behind. Now, he's merely a worker for the highway department, cleaning up trash and maintaining the roads.
For a while he's been living with his wife and teenage son in an expensive high rise apartment in Berkeley. They've been keeping a wealthy appearance as though the still lived in Iran. This is because they wanted their daughter to marry well, and she has recently.
Now, Behrani knows that he can't keep spending the last money they have. He decides to take a large gamble and purchase an auction property. His aim is to buy a house, fix it up, and sell it for many more times what he paid for it. With that profit, he'd buy another house and do the same thing, until his family is able to live in the manner to which they were accustomed in Iran.
In the second chapter, we meet Kathy Nicolo. She was just getting her life together, beating drugs and booze, when her second husband left her. She's afraid to tell her family, so she cleans houses to make ends meet.
One morning, there's a knock at the door. The people at the other end tell her she must leave the house, as she is late on her property taxes and the house is being sold. She swears it is a mistake, that this house was left to her and her bother by their dad. She doesn't owe a cent.
However, the rep from the county begs to differ and forces her out of her own home. The sheriff deputy escorting the rep feels bad for Kathy and offers to help her vacate and find a motel until things can get sorted out.
The house sale goes through and guess who buys it? Colonel Behrani. It turns out that the house was seized and sold by the county in error, but it will take a ton of money and time for Kathy to get her house back, and she just doesn't have the means.
The House of Sand and Fog documents the story of these people, all of whom are fighting for the only thing left in their lives.
Kathy wants the house that once belonged to her father. Not only for shelter and sentimental value, but because losing it would convince her family she was a failure. Can't stay married, can't beat drugs, can't even keep a house she co-owned.
Colonel Behrani wants the house because it is a opportunity to break into the real estate market. He can make money and provide the affluence his family once knew. He knows this affluence will make Americans respect him as he once was in Iran.
Also with a lot at stake is the sheriff deputy, Lester Burdon. He started out feeling sorry for Kathy and helping her. However, he ended up falling in love with her despite having a wife and kids at home. He's so blinded by love that he fails to see that this house is making him lose control of his own life.
I realize that I haven't described House of Sand and Fog very well, but it is almost a book above description. It is psychologically fascinating because it truly bores into the minds of the characters. It shows them as fragile people who are willing to do just about anything when they realize they're about to lose everything.
Andre Dubus III is to be commended for letting the characters' actions direct the story, rather than using the people as pawns that are moved along with the plot. These people make mistakes, and the story moves in the directions that result from these lapses in judgement. These human errors snowball into one of the craziest and fascinating conclusions I have even seen in a work of fiction.
House of Sand and Fog is alternately told from both Kathy's and the Colonel's viewpoints. This works, because it allows the reader to see valid positions in both sides of the story. Kathy wants this house because it holds good memories from her childhood, before she screwed up her life. Colonel Behrani wants the house because he sees it as a way to command the respect her once had as an officer in Iran.
Overall, I found myself rooting for these people and hating them at the same time. I was annoyed with Kathy for letting her life fall apart when she lost the house. However, the property seizure was clearly an error on the part of the county. The government basically stole her house and kicked her out.
Colonel Behrani, on the other hand, is just trying to earn some money. He didn't know the house was sold in error. He just thought he was lucky to get a house for such a low price. This bargain represents the first step in achieving the American dream for his family. However, the Colonel is also an arrogant man. He demands respect from everyone and has great disdain for those who don't give him the respect to which he feels entitled. There's also this incredible need within the Behrani family to present a lifestyle of influence that simply is not there anymore.
Well now, I've bored you enough with my continual praise and over-analysis of the book. I'd like to conclude with the following points:
Yes, this is a selection from the magic Oprah Book Club. However, it was getting rave reviews long before she waved her wand and granted its pages worthy of the coveted "O" stamp on the front cover. Though Ms. Winfrey should be congratulated for getting millions of people reading again, I don't want her taking credit for "discovering" Andre Dubus III.
I am a total book nerd and have read over 100,000 pages in the last 6 years or so. Since that time, House of Sand and Fog is the first book that had me ignoring my husband when he came home from work, and ignoring my sister when she came to visit. Also, in reading over 300 books in recent memory, this has been the only novel where I exclaimed aloud, "Holy sh-t! He did WHAT?"
Lastly, I would like to say that this book is a must read for everyone. I don't think I have ever said that about a book, but I honestly feel all readers across the board will enjoy it. I highly recommend Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog as a gift, a local book club selection, and as one of the best books I have ever read.