In 2008, the novelist Andre Dubus III did something unheard of, especially for an American writer: He published a novel imagining the lives of the 9/11 hijackers. In “The Garden of the Last Days,” the sequel to his hit novel “House of Sand and Fog,” Dubus tells the story of a stripper named April who befriends a Muslim patron named Bassam who, much like the actual 9/11 hijackers, is drawn to both strip bars and radicalism.
In that book, as in each of Dubus’s seven other books, he pushes us to show compassion for all people, including those who commit ugly, heinous deeds. This, Dubus has said, is what he admires most in a book: when a writer is “not poking fun at his or her characters, but instead is genuinely curious about their lives and the particular straits in which they find themselves.”
Dubus’s latest novel, “Such Kindness,” is — geographically at least — closer to home for him. The story centers around a 54-year-old carpenter named Tom Lowe who is down on his luck. Before the housing crash of 2008, Tom takes out an adjustable-rate mortgage to finance a home for his wife and young son. Tom has a work-related accident and becomes addicted to painkillers. Things only get worse for him when he loses his job, his mortgage goes up, and he finds himself divorced and estranged from his son.
The novel begins in the present day, with Tom living in section 8 housing and trying to get his car out of an impound to visit his son Drew at UMass Amherst. To raise money, Tom tries to sell his hardware supplies, but they end up getting stolen. Tom and his neighbor Trina — who has to sell her own plasma to make ends meet — then steal the credit cards of an elderly woman in their apartment complex, which lands Tom in trouble with the law.
Not much else happens in the novel, and that is both its strength and its weakness. Dubus, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is known for heavily researching his books, but it doesn’t really show here — and that, I believe, is a good thing. The intricacies of the Massachusetts penal system, for example, are rendered with subtlety and nuance, and Dubus doesn’t let these details distract from the story. He also has an uncanny ability to capture a certain type of New Englander whose aloofness stems not from rudeness but self-protection and insecurity.
Woven throughout the novel are not-so-subtle jabs at the US financial system, including a scene in which Tom laments that Wall Street bankers who made millions by artificially inflating the price of bonds escape jail time, while petty thieves like him are punished to the maximum extent of the law.
The novel is at its best, though, when it explores Tom’s relationship to his son Drew. In fact, most of the book’s 300 or so pages are filled with Tom’s ruminations about how much he misses and loves his son.
As a new father myself, I never expected to be plagued with such anxiety about whether I will ever be able to express to my son, now age 2, how much I love him and am grateful for his presence. Dubus captures this sentiment beautifully, especially when Tom acknowledges how he felt overwhelmed by — and undeserving of — the love his wife and Drew once showed him: “For years I convinced myself that all the work I did was in service to my wife and son, but the truth is I couldn’t bear the utter gift of them.”
The problem with “Such Kindness” is that it hits this note early on and never really stops. I kept waiting for Dubus to complicate his characters, to show them existing in many more shades. Drew, for example: At first, I thought his absence for most of the novel was a manifestation of the emotional distance that Tom feels from him. But when Drew and his mother, Ronnie, finally do speak, neither have much depth, nuance, or insight. I wanted their arrival to push Tom — and us — to see himself in a new light. Instead the book begins and ends with Tom’s self-pity.
The kindness in the novel’s title, presumably, is the kindness that Tom is trying to find for himself to forgive himself, but I was hoping Dubus might subvert this, to show that perhaps Tom not being in Drew’s and Ronnie’s lives was itself a form of kindness, a way to shield them from his self-destructive behavior. We don’t ever quite know because by the time Drew and Ronnie show up, the novel ends.
Maybe this is what Dubus is hinting at: that redemption might be out of reach for some. “Real life,” Tom muses, “might be … inside us, where the dreams of others merged with our own so that we were all bigger than before and no one was just one.”
But when Tom does reunite with Drew, and spends the night in his empty bed, he sinks his face into his son’s pillow, only to realize that it “smells like the cologne of a man I do not know.”
Dubus is, undoubtedly, a skilled writer, and “Such Kindness” is an admirable project for challenging us to show compassion for those on the economic fringes of society. But Tom feels like a prop to articulate Dubus’s worldview, and by the end, I found myself wishing for more levity to cut the woe.
SUCH KINDNESS: A Novel
By Andre Dubus III
W.W. Norton, 336 pages, $29.95
Zahir Janmohamed is a visiting assistant professor at Bowdoin College.