Four linked novellas is the billing for this Andre Dubus III effort called Dirty Love. The links are superficial except by theme–characters whose relationships are stunted and unsatisfying. Unfortunately, the characters themselves, except for the title story, are stunted and unsatisfying as well.
Mark Welch in Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed (The title’s terrific, no?) is a clueless, pitiful wretch who catches his wife cheating and goes a little nuts. He hires a detective to videotape her and her lover at a tryst, confronts the wrong man with a pipe (no injuries), and spends much of the book figuring out how to repair the floor and ceiling he’s damaged during a tussle with the wife. The household repairs, of course, are a metaphor for the repairs on the relationship. All of this might work if Mark were someone to root for. I didn’t much care whether he succeeded or not, and I never got to know the wife well enough to decide whether she was the party more injured
Marla is a bank teller with a few rather superficial female buddies and not love life at all. She’s resigned to not having one and is not too unhappy, except she’s left out of all her friends’ conversations about romance. Finally, she meets a guy who’s attentive, tender, caring. They move in together, and she feels rather stifled. He’s overweight, likes movies she doesn’t, is a clean freak, and in the end unable to connect with her needs. But he’s okay. And, as a character, so is Marla. However, she’s not someone this reader falls in love with.
The Bartender‘s name is Robert Doucette, and he’s a pusillanimous dickhead who cheats on his pregnant wife in a most squalid manner. I found nothing redeeming about him and wonder why he would qualify as a protagonist even in a noir story. He’s unprincipled enough, but doesn’t have the nads to hold a reader’s interest.
Devin in the title story has real substance. A late-teenager who got caught on tape giving a blowjob in a peer-pressure situation, which tape went semi-viral on the web, she’s trying hard to live down her ignominy and build a life. She has a sympathetic grandfather, a widower, with whom she moves in when her parents–at least her father–boot her out of the house. She goes to work at a bar (the same bar as the aforementioned Robert Doucette, but the link is spurious) and aims at a GED with her grandfather’s help. He’s a retired schoolteacher, so seems a likely candidate to help her succeed.
Unfortunately, we spend so much time with the grandfather”s backstory–granted, his rocky relationship with his wife qualifies thematically, but it keeps us away from Devin, who is the real interest here–that we keep losing our connection with Devin. It’s like a phone conversation wherein the person on the other end keeps dropping out. The continuity deteriorates to the point where the story is irreparably damaged.
In sum, Dirty Love doesn’t make the grade because three of the four characters are too weak to hold interest, and the fourth gets submarined by too much focus on a character who is not the protagonist.