Such Kindness: A Novel

Image of Such Kindness: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 6, 2023
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

"The turnabout in Dubus’ new book is a realization by Lowe that the pit is of his own making, and he has to climb out of it himself—via acts of kindness and consideration."

Tom Lowe has a tragic fall, both literally and figuratively. At one moment the workaholic Massachusetts carpenter and builder is working on a roofing job and in the next he’s falling through the open air. Multiple injuries get him addicted to painkillers, and he loses his newly built home, his “abundist” wife used to easier times, and any real access to their young son.

But Such Kindness is not an addiction story. It’s about redemption. When the book opens, 50-ish Lowe is in Andover, Massachusetts, riding in a car past Phillips Academy and other symbols of the elite life. With him are his young neighbors, Trina and Jamey, and they’re heading for the home of banker Mike Andrews to see what they can find in his garbage, hoping for “convenience checks” sent by credit card companies they can turn into cash.  

Andrews extended Lowe a mortgage he couldn’t afford, then foreclosed on the home Lowe painstakingly built on his own. Now Lowe wants restitution, he wants someone to pay, but will he find what he wants in a garbage can?  

Lowe has good reason to be down. Having kicked those painkillers, he’s in near-constant agony. Dubus never misses an opportunity to cite those metal screws holding the now-disabled carpenter together, but setting him on fire at the same time. Lowe’s only relief is on a plywood cot at his subsidized Section 8 apartment. He has no phone, his car was impounded, and he can barely walk. He’s bitter.

Dubus writes: “The adjustable rate Mike Andrews had winked at me about kicked in and our monthly mortgage seemed to double itself and all I did was work and worry and work some more and then the wheels fell from the gaming tables coast to coast and I took my three-story fall.” Lowe visits the house he built and tortures himself with all the improvements—a bent gutter replaced, cedar shingles nailed over the sheathing—that the new owners made and he couldn’t afford.

Few writers conjure working-class life as convincingly as Andre Dubus III. Recall the barely-hanging-on former drug addict Kathy Nicolo ignoring eviction notices in House of Sand and Fog. But, as in that other book, Such Kindness descends to the rung below that. Sometimes the car is gone and even a minimum-wage job is beyond reach. Here’s a sample:

“The morning my car was towed, Trina was nervous. Drunk the night before, she had her boyfriend ink a new tattoo halfway between her navel and public bone, even though she knew that plasma sellers like her have to wait six months after getting a tattoo before they can go back to the blood-separating machine at Malverne Medical.”

The author’s down-and-outs are black-and-white real, their dialogue as if overhead. There’s often a fight, or spousal abuse, brewing.

The book could have descended into a Grand Guignol chamber of horrors, with the characters’ choices getting more and more desperate. That certainly seems the trajectory when Lowe’s one remaining asset—his tools—go missing. But that’s not what happens. The turnabout in Dubus’ new book is a realization by Lowe that the pit is of his own making, and he has to climb out of it himself—via acts of kindness and consideration. The transition from bitter misfit to Saint of Section 8 is a bit abrupt, and one of the few points of criticism in an otherwise beautifully written and realized book.

A comparison could be made to a story set half a world away. In Fredrik Bachman’s A Man Called Ove, a grumpy old man who’s lost his wife is saved (again, literally) by the open-heartedness of his neighbors. It’s interesting that after a near-perfect Swedish film of the novel it also translated sturdily enough into a Tom Hanks vehicle. These stories are universal—Such Kindness could easily have a Scandinavian accent.

Dubus’ villain is not a convenient target—that wealthy banker, the Sackler family—it’s a danger within us—losing sight of what really matters. Lowe realizes that by building a house he could not afford to shelter his family, and then working maniacally to support it, he actually pushed them away.

Lowe’s son is in trouble at college in Amherst—a world away when you’re on foot and in pain. But he sets out anyway, fortunately with a new attitude. The tail end of the book is that redemptive journey, which will in no way be easy. But grace is not to be found on that plywood cot.

Bob Franke’s 1982 song “Hard Love” would make an excellent soundtrack for Such Kindness. “I remember growing up like it was only yesterday/Mom and Daddy tried best to guide me on my way/But the hard times and the liquor drove the easy love away/And the only love I knew about was hard love/It’s hard love, but it’s love all the same/Not the stuff of fantasy, but more than just a game/And the only kind of miracle that’s worthy of the name/For the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love.”