Massoud Behrani, 56, is a California garbage man. He used to be an air force colonel; in Iran; fled with his family when Khomeini took over. A man accustomed to deference, now he works demeaning jobs while running through the family’s savings to keep up appearances of prosperity for the sake of his daughter’s marriageability.
This 1999 novel, by Andre Dubus III, starts off when a life-changing break comes. With the last of his funds, he manages to buy a nice bungalow very cheaply at auction, after the county seized it for nonpayment of taxes. Behrani believes he can triple his money and use this as a springboard into a dignified real estate business.
But . . .
Then we meet the property’s dispossessed former owner: Kathy, 36, with a history of substance abuse which she seems to have more or less overcome. Her husband (whom she met in rehab) has left her, and she is hunkered down, just trying to hold things together. When she’s dunned for a puzzling business tax, she goes to the county and files paperwork explaining she owes no such tax. Thinking that’s the end of it, Kathy discards, unopened, subsequent letters from the county tax office.
So Kathy suddenly finds herself ousted from her home by sheriff’s deputies. She goes to a legal aid lawyer. Turns out the county screwed up, big time: had the wrong address. But Behrani insists he’s now the legal owner, won’t budge, and tells her she should go sue the county.
A fine mess. Dilemmas of justice are often not right against wrong but right against right. Behrani isn’t entirely in the right, but he has so much invested in this bungalow, not just money but hopes and dreams, that his unwillingness to kiss it off is at least totally understandable.
Of course, this story is only beginning, and portends no good outcome. Especially once Lester is in the picture.
Things “spiraling out of control” is a cliché, but that’s what happens. One thing leads to another. Lester is not a bad person – actually noble in some ways. Nor is he a psychological “case.” Just a pretty normal, ordinary guy. But one thing does lead to another.
Yet I had trouble quite buying it. I know how good people can have lapses of judgment – been there and done that myself in fact. And up to a point Lester’s actions almost make sense, until they don’t. Finally he crosses the line and does something he absolutely shouldn’t. I thought an inner voice ought to have screamed No! But I guess, in the moment, people can ignore such voices. And the reader, already suspecting this story won’t end well, now knows it will end very badly indeed.
Storytelling is as old as language. Something in us craves it. Why? We evolved as the most social of creatures, our very lives dependent upon interaction with others. And it’s to help in that, to help us understand people, that we love stories. It’s why we read books like this: to understand a little better what makes people tick.
Yet ironically it often makes me feel like a Martian. One thing we do when reading a story is to compare ourselves to its characters, measuring ourselves and our lives against them and theirs. And it’s like I live in a bubble, antiseptically, cordoned off from real life lived by real people, like those in House of Sand and Fog.*
But maybe it’s just that I had the operatic drama in my own life decades ago – so long ago that it’s as though it happened to a different person.
* Recently I ate dinner at a bar (long story), next to two guys who, fueled by more beers than I could imagine drinking, were having heated guy talk. Very ordinary guys. And again, beside them, I felt totally like a visitor from Mars.