In “House of Sand and Fog,” No Clear Moral Choices

Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog is a story of contrasts, of the twists and turns of fate, and of the modern pursuit of the American dream. Compulsively readable, this National Book Award nominee will keep you on edge throughout, as you try to decide, again and again, which character’s right, and which is wrong.


On the one hand, we have Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Iranian Air Force. Forced to flee his home country (and his extravagant lifestyle) after the overthrow of the Shah, the Colonel has moved his wife, his daughter, and his son to the Bay Area of California. Given his background, Colonel Behrani assumed he could find employment easily at one of the aerospace companies there. However, as the book opens, he’s working with a trash detail composed of mostly immigrants, picking up garbage along a busy interstate. At night, he works behind the counter of a convenience store. He’s frustrated, beaten down, and nearly out of money, thanks to the expensive apartment he’s maintained to keep up appearances.

On the other hand, Kathy Nicolo is herself desperate and out of options. A former drug addict and current recovering alcoholic, Kathy’s husband has left her. She clings to the one thing she has left in the world – the house she lives in, which she inherited from her father.

The ownership of that house, and everything it represents, is the central conflict of this book. Kathy is evicted from it, on grounds (which turn out to be false) that she didn’t pay taxes she owed. Colonel Behrani decides to use his last bit of savings to buy it at auction, believing he can then sell it for three times the cost and put his family’s life back on track.

Both believe they are the rightful owners, and reading his point of view on the situation and then hers, it’s impossible not to sympathize with each. You feel as though you’re seeing two cars take off at top speed, heading toward each other on a dark road, knowing there’s no clean and easy outcome.

A third character, a married cop Kathy begins an affair with, tips the balance, and the whole mess careens out of control. I won’t give the ending away, except to say that it’s heartbreaking.

This is a novel about property rights and bureaucratic mistakes, yes, but also about expectations and appearances. It’s beautifully written, taut with tension throughout. Every character is flawed; there is no black and white. Like the fog of its title, it’s a book enveloped by gray.

(Originally published here: