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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:

July 27, 2006

I have to say that for a book I bought for next-to-nothing on a whim solely for the purpose of reading on a flight to New Mexico, House of Sand and Fog was much better than I'd hoped. I had already seen the latter half of the movie version and so I knew the basic plot, which seems very close to the source material.

Colonel Bahrani and his family come to America after the Shah's overthrow in 1979 to build a new life. While wealthy and privledged in Iran, Bahrani can only find a job picking up garbage as a "garbage soldier" along the northern California highways. He wears expensive clothes to and from work so that his neighbors, many of them Persian, do not believe him to be poor. The former colonel sees a classified ad in the newspaper for a house auction and decides this will be the way to generate money for his son's college education.

Unfortunately the house used to belong to Kathy Nicolo, a recovering alcoholic/cocaine addict whose no-account husband left her not long ago. Due to a clerical error the house that belonged to her father was repossessed and put on auction. By the time she and her lawyer persuade the county to give back what they wrongly took, the Bahranis have already moved in and the colonel refuses to simply give back the house.

The interesting dilemma for the reader is the same as with the movie. Neither Bahrani or Kathy are particularly likable, so who do you root for? Who is right? The answer is that no one is right and you really can't choose one side over the other. This isn't about good guys vs. bad guys. Bahrani obtained the house legally, why should he have to give it back for no profit and find somewhere else for his family to live? At the same time, Kathy's house was wrongly taken from her, isn't the fair thing to give it back to her?

Now if these two people were reasonable they could broker some kind of deal or compromise. But Bahrani is an autocratic, stubborn man who refuses to yield and return his family to poverty while Kathy is a frantic and desperate woman who sees losing her father's house as the final crash for a life that's been spinning out of control for years. Neither of them is about to be reasonable and neither is about to give in to the other's demands.

So this sets up the ultimate confrontation, the rails greased by Kathy's new boyfriend, a deputy sherriff who's leaving his wife for her (maybe) until the whole thing goes off the track with kidnapping, extortion, and gunplay in the climactic scene.

Overall I thought the writing was sturdy. The shift in language for parts narrated by Bahrani and Kathy helped show the differences between them. I'm not sure why so much time was given to Deputy Lester in the second half or why it was in third person, but it didn't detract from the overall story.

On the down side, the struggles of the characters were a little melodramatic and at times shrilly so, such as Kathy's mammoth bender near the end and Lester's racist attempt at intimidating Bahrani. And the end where certain characters are imprisoned went on for too long; I didn't need to hear all the check-in procedures for the county jail, especially twice.

Still this is a very good book, even for airplane reading. I recommend both the book and the movie, which I plan to watch in its entirety very soon. Make sure you do the same.

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