A sad statistic about murder surprises many people. It is this: we are much more likely to be slaughtered by someone who has said I love you to us than by some stranger. Love may be a conqueror, but it is not always noble or heroic. Indeed, love sometimes transforms us into monsters.
Consider the sad, tragic tale that unfolds in House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. Three characters knit together by volatile threads create a deadly result.
Kathy Nicolo’s burdens are her addictions and negligence. Sheriff’s deputy, Lester Burdon, present at Nicolo’s eviction, sympathizes with her and imagines her to be a victim, one whom he can and should save. But sympathy leads to empathy, empathy to intimacy, intimacy to collusion, and collusion to tragedy when Burdon conspires to reclaim Kathy’s home. He even leaves his own wife and children to save Kathy from Amir Behrani, the new owner of Kathy’s home and an easy target for misdirected wrath. Behrani is an Iranian immigrant attempting his own sort of recovery. He buys Kathy Nicolo’s home at foreclosure prices and plans to flip it in order to acquire investment income and restore his family to their former economic status.
When the lives of Nicolo, Burdon, and Behrani entwine, love becomes a conquering tyrant rather than an instrument of their salvation. Lester’s burgeoning love for Kathy leads him to forsake his family and his duty as an officer of the law. He loses his moral compass, if indeed he ever had one. Kathy’s moral compass is equally broken. She seems to return Lester’s affection, but actually, she enables Lester and draws him on to her own path of self-destruction. Similarly, Behrani believes he acts out of love for his family. He wants to improve their quality of life, but his love, like Kathy’s, is narcissistic. He seeks his own ends at the expense of anyone else’s in the belief that his goals will satisfy their needs.
Love, like coals upon a bed of ash, might burn if anyone breathed upon it, if anyone fed it. But no one can. Kathy, when thwarted, attempts suicide, and love flickers as the Behranis save her life, but Lester misconstrues the Behranis’ actions. Rash and a very poor judge of character, Lester chooses Kathy over duty, Kathy over the moral imperative to do no harm. He holds his weapon against the Behranis and compels them to surrender their home. But just as all three characters have misunderstood each other and their motives, so do the police when called to the scene of a gun drawn in a circle of three men, Lester, Behrani and Behrani’s son. In public view, Behrani’s son becomes a hero, seizing Lester’s gun to save his father from harm, but the police fire upon the boy whom they deem the true threat. Thus, Lester’s aspirations to reclaim a haven for Kathy have become a vendetta. Behrani’s aspirations to reclaim status for his family becomes the instrument of his son’s death. Broken, humbled lower than any court of law would order, Behrani goes home to free his wife from losing her son. Behrani poisons her, then suffocates himself by placing a plastic bag over his head.
Love, misdirected and abused, transformed each character into something hideous. Behrani’s pride flourished and grew tentacles that destroyed. Kathy’s addictions enveloped her house and her rescuer, exposing their frailties and sins. Love conquered all, but did not favor them. Love did not a clear a path to happiness. Instead, Love put up barriers impossible to hurdle.
An equally tragic tale is Emily Brontë’s brooding nineteenth-century novel, Wuthering Heights, a dark portrait of love given and withdrawn, of revenge, and necrophilia involving a waif rescued from a life of poverty and given love by his foster father, Earnshaw, and foster sister, Catherine. But Earnshaw favors Heathcliff and spurns his biological child, Hindley. When Hindley becomes head of the household, he acts upon his jealousy and abuses Heathcliff. Only the love of Catherine could save Heathcliff, and it does until she too rejects Heathcliff, seeing him in the context of his lower class, ill-mannered origins instead of seeing him for the promise within all human beings. Love denied destroys Heathcliff. He dedicates his every pulse of energy to vengeance and destruction even if he destroys himself and that which he once loved in the process.
Once again, Love conquers, but as a tyrant, not a benevolent god, and its manifestations in flawed humans are hideous.
If you have not already read House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, do so now. You will also find a good movie version with the same title and directed by Vadim Perelman. I also recommend Wuthering Heights to you. Idmb.com lists seventeen film versions of this book, but if you wish to “read” it on film, the 2009 film for TV remains true to the spirit and facts of the book even though it alters chronology and point of view.
Tell the true or partially true tale of love gone awry--of love that mutates good people into misguided fools or controlling monsters.
GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):
You may have noticed that Behranis, in the post above, refers to Mr. and Mrs. Behrani, characters in House of Sand and Fog, parents of two children, and immigrant victims of the American dream and Mr. Behrani’s ambitions. An apostrophe to transform one Behrani into more than one Behrani is wrong, but to indicate possession, as in Behrani’s ambitions, an apostrophe is essential.