Dirty Love is a collection of four loosely connected stories/novellas that explore love, loneliness, and the multiple ways in which people manage to screw up their relationships. Manage is an especially appropriate word to apply to the first story, "Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed," in which Mark Welch sets a private detective to following his wife Laura. When the detective videotapes her having sex with another man, Mark confronts her and ends up living in the "mother-in-law" apartment with his mother. Banished from his home, he plots responses in which he will apply his skills as a project manager to the wreck his marriage has become. Those skills prove to be remarkably ineffective, and Mark seems to be careening ever closer to a violent confrontation.
"Marla" is the story of a chubby bank teller, who shares her apartment with a cat. When one of her customers, Dennis, asks her out to dinner, she begins to hope that her life will come to resemble that of her happily coupled friends. Marla and Dennis move in together, but the experience is not what Marla expected.
In "Bartender," Robert believes he is a poet, but he makes his living as a bartender. Something of a playboy, Robert meets and marries Althea, primarily because her eyes on the night they met reminded him of a phrase that had pleased him that morning when he thought of it: "eyes of black hope." Althea soon becomes pregnant, and Robert believes a new live has started . . . . but he can't quite keep himself from sleeping with one of the waitresses at the bar.
The final story, "Dirty Love," is particularly poignant. It features Devon, an 18-year-old whose reputation has been ruined by "friends" who have posted a picture of her performing oral sex online. Her father has turned away from her, and she is now living with her elderly great-uncle Frances, a lovely man who knows Devon is troubled but doesn't know the details of what happened. Frances, a retired teacher, is trying to prepare Devon to take the GED. Meanwhile, Devon tries to lose herself in music and online encounters.
Dirty Love is a bleak portrayal of human relationships (and humans for that matter), but there's something about Dubus's prose that keeps you reading despite being in the slough of despondence.
She began to cry, and it was as if she were falling backwards into a dark hole, for how could she have forgotten she was a dull, round woman who'd been a dull, round girl, lucky enough now to have found anyone at all? That for all Dennis was not, for all that she didn't feel for him, he was better than a lifetime of nobody.