Property as subtext
The longing to own a house by the side of the road is one of the oldest of humanity's stories. Perhaps for this reason it also functions as subtext in much of our literature, and now provides the momentum for Andre Dubus III's outstanding new novel, House of Sand and Fog.
"In my country, there is an old belief that if a bird flies into your home, it is an angel who has come to guide you . . ."
The speaker here is Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Iranian Air Force, now owner of a bungalow on a California hillside. But that's no angel in his house -- she's Kathy Nicolo, a recovering addict, who believes that the Colonel's bungalow rightfully belongs to her. Actually, through an error at the county tax office, she's right. But the Colonel, who bought the house legally at auction, is also right. Each side of the ensuing property dispute sees the other through the lens of its own culture.
Americans, the Colonel thinks, spend far too much time in the "pale blue glow" of television, and thus ". . . have eyes of very small children who are forever looking for their next source of distraction, entertainment, or a sweet taste in the mouth." To Kathy and her deputy sheriff boyfriend, the Colonel's proud and graceful Iranian family, though U.S. citizens, are "Arabs" too far from home, "sitting on stolen property."
One of the many strengths of this story is that most of its characters come to understand the point of view of the others at least briefly. But each, through circumstance, personality, and culture, is locked into a pattern of behavior which he or she is helpless to change. Dubus's ability to inhabit characters across culture and gender is stunning.
What's at stake here, Dubus suggests, is far more than property. As this collision of cultures and good intentions gone wrong spirals into tragedy, there's a sense of inevitability like that at the end of an ancient Greek play. In our grieving for the fates of these people, we recognize ourselves, our dreams and flaws, as well as those of our own culture.
James William Brown is the author of Blood Dance (Harcourt Brace).