Tom Lowe has been dealt a rough hand. A skilled builder, in a moment of carelessness he fell off a roof and shattered his bones. In “Such Kindness,” Andre Dubus III offers Tom as an angry Siddhartha Gautama, the pre-enlightenment Buddha, resentful and grieving all that he has lost and as yet unaware of any path forward.
As the book opens, Tom is sitting in a car with his neighbor, Trina, and Jamey, the young man driving them to the home of Tom’s banker. They pass Phillips Academy, the prep school in Andover, Mass., “a place dedicated to opening door after door for its students, most of whom come from families for whom doors are rarely closed anyway.” Tom’s resentment is the neon glare reflecting off the streets.
The banker had urged Tom to take out a mortgage, then foreclosed when Tom’s injury made work impossible. Tom’s half-baked plan is to take revenge by stealing cash-advance checks from the banker’s trash. When that scheme is thwarted, Tom returns to his Section 8 apartment. Alone on his couch, he rehearses the litany of troubles that have led him there. The injury, months of rehab, unrelenting pain. The painkillers that became a problem until he weaned himself from them. The alcohol that is his “pain distracter.” His busted marriage. His college-age son, who has been neglected as Tom has sunk into hell.
In novels including “Gone So Long,” “Townie” and “House of Sand and Fog,” Dubus excels at showing how mistakes can compound into tragedy. Rarely in his work is change the consequence of a single decision. A transformation is less like a tidal wave and more like a pattern, a cycle, which adds deposits or erodes the fragile coastline one grain of sand at a time. In “Such Kindness,” Tom’s story shows how gradual change can break a man — or build him back up.
First, Dubus brilliantly captures the ways chronic pain erodes the self. The pain is solipsistic, demanding such constant attention that it takes control over a brain tasked with monitoring it. It makes you irresponsible. “Responsible … The ability to respond,” Dubus writes. “To the tasks and duties expected of you. To the hunger your wife has for a home in which to raise this baby you made from love. … To respond to your hopes. To your child’s hopes.”
Tom hobbles through a world he fails to see. He only sees the liquor store where he soothes his pain. The beauty salon where the owner allows him to use her phone. He listens through the walls as his neighbor yells at her kids and her boyfriend yells at her. He clocks the middle-aged son who occasionally checks on his elderly mother. He watches as the man across the street works two jobs trying to get his wife and kids out of their unsafe neighborhood. He watches and he stews.
For working-class men who work with their hands and bodies, the loss of physical abilities may be obliterating. Capitalism demands our labor from early adulthood to death. So what is a man if he cannot work? Tom defends capitalism when Jamey says that property is theft. “I ask him where he heard that Marxist b—. ‘It’s not b—. And it wasn’t Karl Marx, it’s some French anarchist dude.” These are the kinds of discussions we once expected to hear in a working-man’s club or a union hall before we were informed that the white working class was a monolith ensorcelled by Trump. In this case, Tom is not quite ready to hear it.
Instead, he focuses on all that his injury has cost him. Nevertheless, his natural instinct is to help others — including Trina, when she is threatened by her ex — and to resort to his old toolkit of masculinity. His macho posturing is maladapted, only escalating Trina’s troubles and sending him back to his couch.
But Dubus is no fatalist; we are on a difficult journey of redemption. A series of small events leads to a series of tiny realizations. But there is no straight path, no Christian epiphany, only an agonizing upward spiral. Smooth patches of progress hit speed bumps and unexpected corkscrew turns. Tom is forced to pay attention to something other than his hips, his broken pelvis, only to get distracted again.
What he begins to notice is that his troubles are not unique. An elderly neighbor is lonely. A young mother needs help with her kids. A friend dies and his widow needs comforting. His son is floundering and needs to be pulled from drowning. Small cracks where the light shows him that all of us need help.
It reminded me of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, in which a woman demanded that the Buddha bring her child back to life. He promised to do so only if she could bring back mustard seeds from a family that had never suffered loss. And so she discovers that everyone has suffered and grief is not exclusive to her.
But even this will not be enough. Moments of charity border on martyrdom as Tom begins to think that his empathy has become another power to exercise. In his efforts to help, he overextends himself. He has more lessons to learn.
In a culture in which men are taught from an early age to overpower any obstacle, to ignore their feelings, to control a problem rather than surrender to it, to talk but not to listen, it would be easy to mock a novel about a man who chooses empathy. Dubus probes at masculinity’s wounds, its core beliefs about earning money as a means of caring for others, and exposes the selfishness and emptiness at its core.
Tom becomes, then, an alternative model of masculinity. To figure out his place in this community, he will have to make himself vulnerable and soft rather than brittle and mean. Dubus, meanwhile, models this vulnerability by risking earnestness inside of a literary culture that rewards the armor of irony. He reminds me of Rilke, who wrote to a young poet about how he needed to be patient, to learn the lessons of pain. To recognize that the paralysis of suffering deafens us to our own emotions. “Such Kindness” is an astonishing novel about all these feelings, and the actions they call forth when we pay attention.
Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.