The four lightly connected stories take place north of Boston in a small coastal town like the one Dubus described in his recent memoir, “Townie.” It seems always chilly and overcast in these tales, an expression perhaps of the inability of anyone to feel the warmth they need. Each story features someone looking for love — and carelessly mishandling it. There’s an echo of Richard Russo’s work here, though these are tougher, more calloused situations. One of Dubus’s great talents is his ability to shift our allegiances, to inspire our affection for obnoxious men, turn us against them and then finally bring us back with enlarged sympathies.
Spiked with grim comedy, “Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed” is a sharp story about the way work culture has infected our lives. Mark Welch is a 56-year-old project manager at a software company, a man trained to identify, isolate and solve problems — like, say, his wife’s chronic unhappiness and subsequent adultery. “He began to see this as an opportunity and not a threat,” Dubus writes, “a positive risk that must be managed and monitored and controlled.” Unfortunately, Laura is not a project; she’s his spouse of more than 20 years. But Mark is so filled with self-righteous anger that he can’t quite comprehend that his long marriage is over — has been over for a long time. Reviewing a surveillance tape of his wife having sex with another man, he imagines that this perverse piece of evidence will somehow shame her into repentance rather than make her flee in horror.
The real pain of this story is that Mark isn’t completely clueless about his destructive behavior; it’s just that he’s defined himself for so long as a blunt solver of problems that he doesn’t know any other way to act. Confronting his wife, “Mark recognized the tone of his voice,” Dubus writes. “It was the same he used when ordering a poorly motivated team member to do one thing or another. And so he was ordering his wife — for she was, by definition, a member of his team, wasn’t she? — to stay home.” By the time he gets a full sense that he’s “a grasping failure of a man,” it’s awfully late, but what choice does he have other than to throw himself toward the possibility of redemption and reconciliation?
It’s that just-out-of-reach desire that creates such poignancy in each of these stories, including one about a philandering bartender named Robert, who likes to pretend he’s a poet. He’s not, but Dubus is. He’s got a transparent, easy style that’s never self-consciously lyrical but constantly delivers phrases of insight and gentle wit that lay open these characters without scalding them with irony, as we’ve come to expect from so many clever novelists. Like Mark in the first story, Robert feels that “suffocating awareness of his own worthlessness,” but the literary marketplace is flooded with cheap despair like that. What makes these stories so valuable is the way Dubus follows the strains of his characters’ muted hope.
The first three pieces succeed entirely on their own terms, but they also serve as powerful preparation for the final novella, called “Dirty Love.” In this, the best and by far the longest story, at 127 pages, Dubus moves out of the well-trod path of marital unhappiness to focus on a teenage girl named Devon and her octogenarian great-uncle. On this broader canvas, we can see the full effect of Dubus’s sophisticated structure, his movement between characters and time periods handled so fluidly that it never distracts or calls attention to itself. Hardly anything actually happens in this story, and yet it feels packed with action, freighted with these characters’ recurring memories and anxieties.
Devon has been humiliated by a sex clip posted online by someone she thought was a friend. Unable to live with her feckless mother and angry father, she has moved in with her great-uncle, a retired high school teacher. The story’s power comes from its bracing emotional honesty, its ability to follow Devon’s faltering desire for love down several doomed avenues. This is a girl who has learned — and keeps learning — that many young men will use and abuse her need for closeness however they can.
Dubus has a particularly good eye for the way pop culture and new forms of technology have infected our lives, promising ever more human connection while walling us into our private sound chambers of rage and chat-roulette booths of synthetic intimacy. Devon and her high school friends wade through an era of graphic sexuality blasting from the radio and gushing from the Web. When one of the many creepy men she meets online asks, “Are you alone?” Devon replies with hard-won wisdom, “We’re all alone.”
While her raw, adolescent pain dominates the foreground of this story, in the background we can always hear the melancholy sigh of her great-uncle, still haunted by his experiences in the Korean War and his efforts to drink those memories away. He’s not sure what Devon did wrong, and he doesn’t entirely approve of the way she lives, but decades of marriage to a sharp-tongued woman taught him that whatever we need, it’s not more criticism. In the twilight years of his life, he appreciates what all these characters need to understand: just how reflexively we poison one another every day with our relentless judgments, our acidic opinions.
The affection that he and Devon share — the unconditional love that admits no impediments — is the pure heart of this book. Dubus isn’t naive enough to tell us for sure that it will save anyone, but he knows it’s the only chance we’ve got.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.