HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG

By Andre Dubus III

Norton. 365 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by John Katzenbach

A onetime colonel in the Shah of Iran's air force, a young woman who is a lapsed drug addict, and an emotionally adrift sheriff's officer create an unusual and volatile mix in Andre Dubus III's novel House of Sand and Fog. In an odd, frequently compelling, occasionally frustratingly wordy way, it is a literary thriller that finds considerable tension in the emotional landscapes of the three main characters.

The book opens with a fascinating portrayal of the upper-crust, educated, sophisticated ex-fighter-jet pilot Col. Massoud Behrani working on a California road crew, cleaning up other people's trash. The colonel holds down this job, and a second as a night clerk in a convenience store, while all the time carefully maintaining the appearance of wealth that is critical to his social standing in the Iranian expatriate community and that he believes is the twine that holds his family together. He has developed elaborate schemes to make certain that no one, either in the luxury apartment complex where he rents his home or at the blue-collar jobs he works, knows of his actual financial circumstances. He lives in a world of lies.

Knowing how precarious his situation is, the colonel decides to purchase a small but tidy house in Corona, near the water. Having been seized for delinquent payments, the house is being sold at a sheriff's auction. It is wildly undervalued, and the colonel sees that with a modest amount of repair and improvement, he will be able to triple his investment and thereby set himself squarely on the road to financial salvation.

What the colonel doesn't know is that the house belonged to recovering addict Kathy Nicolo, a woman with precious few means herself beyond the house itself, which she was given by her late father. The seizure of the house was the result of a bureaucratic error. She is mistakenly tossed out, and comes to see the recovery of her house as not only just but critical to her existence. It symbolizes for her all that is positive in her life, all that is stable. She is estranged from her remaining family, and her husband has run away from her. It is the only thing of true solidity she possesses, and her determination to get it back -- even as Col. Behrani is determined to keep it -- is the engine that drives House of Sand and Fog.

The third character in this train wreck waiting to happen is Lester Burdon, the sheriff's officer who evicted Kathy Nicolo and who almost as quickly leaves his wife and two children to fall into her bed. Burdon is at the crossroads of his life, unhappy with the normalcy that stalks him, the lack of passion that surrounds his day-to-day existence. Though a policeman, he questions his authority, his ability to be decisive. It is almost as if he were afraid of who he is, and more afraid of who he might be, even if his future is one of relative quiet, suburban simplicity. He becomes Kathy's main ally, first in confronting the bureaucracy that messed up, then in confronting the colonel and his family. He wants them to do the right thing by returning the house to his new lover, unaware that "the right thing" for the Behrani family is far from that. What evolves is a clash of both cultures and psychologies, and it all inevitably leads to violence and death.

Like his late father, the well-known New England craftsman of the short story, Andre Dubus III is a writer of considerable breadth and depth. It is a testament to his skills with words that he is able to take these three disparate characters and make them come alive. But it is unfortunate that none of them is particularly likable. The attraction to House of Sand and Fog is not unlike the fascination one feels when something terrible happens to someone known and disliked. The reader soaks up details in a voyeuristic fashion and is compelled to follow the story to the end while never truly caring much about the participants. On more than one occasion, when Dubus indulges in lengthy descriptions not altogether dissimilar from other lengthy descriptions, one wishes he would simply get on with his tale. Still, the novel contains much elegant and powerful writing and holds great promise for Dubus's future work.

John Katzenbach has written seven novels, the latest of which is "Hart's War."