Mid-way through reading Dirty Love, I tore the book apart. I don’t mean figuratively, although I was reading at a clip; I ripped its pages out. I didn’t mean any insult: I just couldn’t squeeze the entire manuscript into my over-packed purse, and I was desperate to finish what I found to be the most electrifying portion of the book on my way to work: A story about a would-be poet-cum-bartender who cheats on his wife just before she goes into labor prematurely, and then is confronted with the horrifyingly insensitive nature of his behavior.
It’s a piercing, painful story with a surging humanity beneath it, and similar things could be said about all the stories and the novella that constitute this book. I can think of no novelist who renders the gritty, down-and-out corners of New England better than Dubus, and those beautifully specific, contained slices of American life open into whole universes of love, violence, guilt, and betrayal. Where the book stumbles, slightly, is in its portrayal of the effects of technology on his characters’ lives. The central novella, from which the book takes its name, revolves around the teenage victim of online gossip. While the plot is in some ways eerily prescient (the gossip surrounds a sexual act, and there are almost certainly inadvertent but inevitable echoes of Steubenville), it also feels a bit too of-the-moment—evoking that kind of cultural specificity that feels as though it will be dated within a year or two. Still, it’s hard to fault a writer for putting his finger too precisely on the zeitgeist, and it is only in contrast to the timeless elegance of his other stories that this slightly jars.