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Tragedy Strikes Home in the Dark Novel 'House of Sand and Fog'

April 08, 2001|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The American Dream becomes the Great American Tragedy in the latest novel from Andre Dubus III, "House of Sand and Fog." (Harper Audio, unabridged fiction; 10 cassettes; 15 hours; $39.95; read by the author and Fontaine Dollas Dubus.)

A multinational highway crew is picking up trash on a hot California day when the story begins. Reflecting on his life is a member of that crew, Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian military under the shah. This is a man who is educated, who once took wealth and power for granted. He is also a man who spent too much of his nest egg keeping up appearances once he arrived in America, as he wanted his daughter to make a good marriage.

When Behrani uses his remaining savings to buy a small house at a government auction, he believes he is securing his family's future, hoping to resell the inexpensive house at a profit. Instead, he puts his family on a path that will lead to heartache and destruction. Standing firmly in that path is alcoholic and self-destructive Kathy Nicolo, the former owner of Behrani's new house.

To Nicolo, the house is her father's legacy and losing it represents the downward spiral her life has taken. She tries to take it back legally, then makes a vendetta of it. Behrani, proud and unbending, meets her head-on.

The story is told from three perspectives. Author Dubus reads the parts of Behrani and Sheriff Lester Burdon, a married man who befriends Nicolo and is soon drawn into, and contributes to, her crazy life. Dubus' wife, Dollas Dubus, reads the part of Nicolo.

Dubus is best when reading the sheriff. He captures the dark, almost noirish feeling of the novel, and certainly expresses its tragedy through his performance. He convincingly deepens his voice and slows his pace for the former colonel, but he does not hang onto his Persian accent and his delivery is monotone.

Dollas Dubus has an average voice, a little thin, but quite suitable for Nicolo. Though her performance is not dynamic, she ably expresses the confusion and frailty of this character.

*

Another dark fable set in modern America is "The Diagnosis," by physicist and best-selling author Alan Lightman. (Books on Tape; unabridged fiction; nine cassettes; 12 hours; $34.95; read by Scott Brick. Also available on CD.)

Junior executive Bill Chalmers is rushing to his job in downtown Boston one morning when he forgets who he is and where he is going. All he remembers is the motto of his company: "The maximum information in the minimum time." After an embarrassing breakdown on the subway and a day of harrowing escapades, he remembers his identity and returns to his comfortable home in the suburbs. It is an impressive beginning that does not fulfill its promise.

Though his memory returns, Chalmers develops a strange tingling in his legs and hands, eventually losing all sensation. As his body begins to shut down, Chalmers is put through a battery of tests, though a diagnosis is never made.

For the most part, this riff on Kafka is well-written. As Chalmers continues to shut down, Lightman shows us with wicked humor the coldness of the medical profession and the calculation of co-workers who offer banal comforts while scheming for his place in the office.

However, his subplot does not fare as well. Chalmers' teenage son reads to his dad from the Plato Online Web site as Chalmers grows weaker. The subplot details the trial of Socrates and his inquisitor Anytus. Lightman does not tell the real story, but a fictionalized version concerning Anytus' strife with his rebel son, a Socrates supporter, and Anytus' grief over becoming hated as the man who killed the popular philosopher. It's not apparent why this story is even included.

One may (barely) make a case that the story parallels Bill's despair over the widening gulf the illness has caused between himself and his son. Perhaps Lightman is trying to remind us that Socrates said an unexamined life is not worth living. Still, these connections are tenuous at best.

Narrator Scott Brick engages us emotionally and is especially compelling when Chalmers has his initial breakdown. He is quite adept at most details, though he loses points for mispronouncing the city of Woburn, near Boston. However, he adds texture with little touches, such as the stuffy-sounding minor character described as having a cold. He consistently captures the anger, frustration and fear of the main character, as well as the panic expressed by his wife.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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