The Hamartia of Lester Burdon
By Kate Hendrickson
"House of Sand and Fog," by Andre Dubus III, explores the catastrophic repercussions of a complex misunderstanding between three characters. The conflict initially involves a dispute between Kathy Nicolo and Massoud Behrani over the “rightful” ownership of a house. The county wrongfully evicts Kathy and Behrani then buys her house at an auction. When Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon enters the situation, events quickly slip out of control. Superficially, Lester’s character is important to the novel because he acts as a catalyst, propelling the plot into unexpected action. But Lester impacts the novel in a more profound way, because were it not for his insecurity and selfishness, the rest of the characters could have been spared an avoidable tragedy.
Lester’s commitment to help Kathy at all costs undeniably alters the outcome of the novel. By providing her with money for a motel, and later with shelter at a friend’s cabin, he allows her to continue avoiding the reality of the situation. If Lester had never met Kathy, she would have been forced to be upfront with her lawyer. Instead, Kathy tells herself “there a limit to how much [her lawyer] wants to help,” and continues to tell Connie Walsh that she is staying with friends (88). Knowing the severity of Kathy’s plight could have prompted Connie Walsh to more ardently pursue the county on Kathy’s behalf. Because of Lester, however, the truth is kept from the lawyer.
Additionally, although proclaiming his love for her, Lester becomes a negative influence on Kathy. Under the false sense of security he provides, Kathy, a recovering alcoholic, allows herself to start drinking again after an abstinence of three years. Though Lester’s concern for the return of her house is evident through his later actions, his concern for her psychological well-being seems non-existent. He never questions her sudden return to alcohol and fails to notice her growing dependence on it. If Lester had caught the warning signs—Kathy smoking profusely “as a crutch” and feeling “jittery” when she needs more alcohol—if Lester had recognized these symptoms, perhaps he would have realized Kathy’s current mental instability (145). But Lester overlooks this side of Kathy and is unable to check her usage. As a result, drunk and desperate at a restaurant in the mall, Kathy is convinced that Lester will return to his family and leave her, only after making love “to [her] like a man taking in oxygen before he goes on a long underwater trip” (202). In her impaired state, Kathy drives to her father’s house, now occupied by the Behrani family, and attempts suicide twice. When Lester arrives at the house and spies Kathy passed out on the floor, he assumes the worst and breaks into the Behrani’s house, holding them hostage. This starts a chain of events that ends with the Behranis and their son dead and Kathy and Lester in prison.
Lester’s presence drags the rest of the characters down a dismal road of hostages, hatred, and suicide. Had Dubus omitted him from the novel, the conflict could have resolved itself in a non-violent manner. However, by adding Lester’s third-person point of view to the first-person perspectives of Kathy and Behrani, Dubus transforms the story into a three-dimensional narrative. The omniscient narrator in Lester’s sections of the book allows the reader to understand his character and the effect he has on Kathy, and consequently, the situation involving her house. Dubus gradually reveals Lester Burdon as an insecure and self-centered man.
As Kathy’s affair with Lester progresses, she learns more about his home situation. He explains that he no longer desires his wife of nine years and the mother of his two children, that he loves her only “like a sister” (117). Lester has kept his unhappiness from her for seven years, choosing instead to live a life under false pretenses for the sake of his kids. But although he claims he stays with Carol for his children, as the story progresses Dubus implies that he is instead a deeply insecure man. Evidence of this comes in snatches of his memories. He feels like an imposter working for the police force, constantly worried that “he [is] in over his head, that one day someone [will] see just how unfit and weak he really [is] and . . . the true Lester [will] be revealed” (229). Although he views himself as someone who wants “not only to clean up everybody else’s act, but to make the world safe again by doing so,” in truth he considers himself inadequate and not worthy of doing so (235). Failures from his childhood haunt his adult life, and he resents himself for his failing marriage. When Lester meets Kathy, he feels he has encountered a new partner, someone with which to embark on a new start. He latches onto her in an attempt to resolve his own issues, unintentionally landing them both behind bars.
Eight months after her husband abandons her, Kathy finds in Lester a man she can connect with. She sees in him “goodness behind all the sadness in his eyes” and admires his choice of profession (179). Lester longs to regard himself in this light and uses Kathy as a means of doing so. By offering to help Kathy regain possession of her house, Lester takes on the role of hero, subconsciously trying to counteract the inferiority he feels. To Lester, Kathy is a victim, a “damsel in distress,” and by helping her he begins to justify his life and to feel that he serves a purpose. Kathy serves as an escape from Lester’s problems, and he wants “to go so deeply inside her he [will] hardly even be him anymore” (289). But Lester’s selfishness in remedying his personal problems through Kathy’s situation ends tragically. Instead of talking reasonably with the Behranis, he resorts to rash actions—impersonating an immigration officer to threaten the family, breaking and entering their house, holding the family hostage, brandishing a weapon, and attempting to bend them to his will. He miscalculates his opponents, however, just as he miscalculates Kathy. Although his infatuation with Kathy is obvious, the reader has trouble accepting it as true love. He does not understand her subtle complexities, like her tense relationship with her family or her loneliness after the departure of her husband. Instead he observes the situation as merely a problem that requires a quick fix, and he sets about “fixing” the situation instead of fulfilling Kathy’s emotional needs.
In the tradition of a Greek tragedy, Lester’s insecurity is his hamartia, his tragic flaw. His egocentrism stems from this, causing him to overlook the needs of others in his quest for self-justification. This is not to say that the awful outcome of the novel can be attributed to Lester alone. All three main characters fail to understand one another and rush to false assumptions based on cultural differences. But the fatalities of the scenario can be traced back to the overreactions of Lester. In the form of Lester Burdon, Dubus imbues his story with a potent warning against dishonestly with oneself. Only when a man truly understands himself and accepts his flaws can he attempt to overcome them.
© Kate Hendrickson