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Joseph PeschelFebruary 15, 2024
(iStock)

In his latest novel, Such Kindness, Andre Dubus III depicts protagonist Tom Lowe Jr., struggling after nearly a decade to accept his station as a “first-world-poor” man living with a disability in subsidized housing in Amesbury, Mass. The story is a powerful one full of sorrow and hope—less about physical recovery than psychological journey—a Siddhartha-like “search for who he was meant to be,” either a good man or a thief.

Such Kindnessby Andre Dubus III

W. W. Norton & Company
336p $30

 

This is Dubus’s best novel since House of Sand and Fog (1999), which sold so well that he could afford to build a house for his family in Massachusetts, much like his fictional protagonist, but with much less heartache and body ache, I hope. Dubus knows poverty. His father, the writer Andre Dubus, made $7,000 a year teaching while supporting a wife and four kids. When the younger Andre’s parents divorced, his father’s income had to pay for another apartment, another car and child support. “We went,” Dubus says, “from First World poor to First World poorer.”

Since then, Dubus has written about the middle- and lower-middle classes in his acclaimed memoir Townie (2011) and in his novels Gone So Long (2018) and The Garden of Last Days (2008). Dubus’s past portrayals of middle-class folk are both realistic and precise. His dialogue has been mostly true and believable except for some stereotypical English-Arabic in Garden. In Such Kindness, not only are the characters convincing, their dialogue and the voice of the first-person narrator is believable; and Tom, though an imperfect hero, is likable.

When we are introduced to Tom, we find he is a builder and a carpenter who fell from the roof while building his family’s house and fractured his hips and pelvis. Tom read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha as a teenager and thought it described his own life. Instead of Hesse’s growing up “in the shade of the fig tree,” Tom thinks, “in the shade of the dead-end street is where Tom Lowe Jr. grew up.”

Dubus weaves religious and metaphysical imagery into his story, as he did in Garden, but this time the imagery is solely Christian. Describing Tom’s accident, he writes:

That church spire towering over those trees behind me that afternoon, it felt like some reminder to me that this life of ours is suffused with mystery, and who’s to say that I’m not supposed to learn something important from this latest challenge?...
But who’s to say? That phrase a feather in my head as my own body seemed to unmoor from its very center, and then the air itself shifted and I was somehow rushing through that air, my hands lurching for the soffit and the blue beyond as if they could possibly save me.

Dubus puts Tom in a dangerous position—and I don’t mean just standing on a roof without a harness. It has been about 10 years since Tom’s fall, and other things fell apart, too. Tom had jumped on a good deal for the land his home was built on at only $90,000, but he borrowed more than he should have and neglected to look into the finer points of an adjustable-rate mortgage. When its long arm kicked in, the monthly mortgage payments nearly doubled and strangled him. His injury prevented him from working and, when he couldn’t pay the premiums, he lost his health insurance. He became addicted to opioids, which he calls “O’s,” to manage the pain in his hips. His medical bills grew along with loan payments, and he lost the family home.

If all that weren’t bad enough, Tom’s wife Ronnie (Veronica) divorced him, and his son Drew hates his father because of Tom’s baggies of Os. But that is all backstory that Dubus deftly reveals throughout the novel.

Although Dubus piles a lot of hardship on Tom, he manages to avoid over-sentimentality. The story, told in the present tense, begins as Tom, his neighbor Trina and her friend Jamie make their getaway with the trash from the home of the banker who issued Tom the adjustable-rate mortgage. Though Tom soon regrets it, it was his idea to harvest credit card convenience checks from people’s trash to make some money. This time, they find nothing of any value.

Tom has worked since he was 16. But now, broken physically and emotionally, he is unable to hold a job because of his disability. His hips burn with pain, and even though he has kicked his drug habit, he drinks cheap vodka as a “pain distracter” to endure the burning. He has tried working other jobs: a sitting job as an Uber driver that he could physically tolerate for only about three weeks, and a standing job as a cashier at a store about 200 yards from where he lives, “the 8” (Section 8 subsidized housing). There, Tom has a menagerie of neighbors about whom he laments: “For the thousandth time I think that I do not belong here. I do not belong here with any of these people.”

These people include Trina, 27, a jobless, single mother of three who sells her plasma every week to help pay the rent. Although she yells and swears at her kids “all day and night,” she and Tom are friends and he spends more time with her than he does with any of his other neighbors. Amber and Cal live across from Trina’s unit. He is Black and she is white, and their three kids are all under the age of six. “Those kids,” Tom says, “are always dressed in clean clothes, their hair and faces washed, two boys and a girl their mother doesn’t let play with Trina’s kids, who are not clean and who do not wear clean clothes.”

Then there is good Mrs. Bongiovanni, “close to a hundred,” about whom Tom wonders “if she’s from the old country and not this ‘new’ one that throws away its old and its broken and even those barely getting started.” Fitz, the evil neighbor, makes pornography and steals and sells drugs. He buys Tom’s food assistance cards for 75 percent of their value. It’s what Tom resorts to so that he “can buy the liquid pain distracter that keeps me from falling back to the Os.” After Fitz’s cut, Tom has only $100.38 for food for the month.

Dubus makes the money situation even worse for Tom, who wants to buy his son something for his birthday. But Tom faces fines amounting to $1,600 over a traffic incident, plus car-impound charges that keep growing. As the child’s birthday gets nearer, Tom plans to sell his prized tools to raise some money to pay the fines and get his car out of storage, but someone steals the tools.

You would think the hardships and the sorrows couldn’t get worse for Tom, but Dubus continues to twist the knife as the story unfolds. As Tom makes his trek to visit his son, he gets plenty of kindness from strangers. But Dubus thrusts Tom into the fraud scheme again. I won’t spoil the ending—but Tom gleans some hard-learned philosophies of life, and considers reading Siddhartha again for its wisdom.

Readers may find similar wisdom within grasp if they read Such Kindness.

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