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a reliable wife

10 may 2010

Robert Goolrick's novel A Reliable Wife comes with page after page of testimonials from reviewers fairly blown away by its power. "Gothic" is the word they use most often in describing it, and there are elements of Gothic in the story: a woman torn between two men, in a huge, melodrama-laden house, with a certain amount of poison in the mix. There's a light foundation of Jane Eyre, huge piles of snow trucked in from Anne Hébert's Kamouraska, a splash of Phaedra & Hippolytus, prose with a hint of D.H. Lawrence. The novel I'm reminded most strongly of by A Reliable Wife is Steven Millhauser's great Martin Dressler: also the story of a man who overreaches himself at the turn of the 20th century. Martin Dressler does it in Manhattan, and Ralph Truitt in the North Woods of Wisconsin, but both work in a landscape drawn more from the feverish reaches of the human imagination than from literal geography.

Martin Dressler just keeps getting odder and more offbeat, which is what makes it truly great. A Reliable Wife, by contrast, is just a melodrama with a few mysterious aspects. Once the mystery clears up, there's nothing but a predictable explosion. Once you've established three enigmatic, intriguing characters, you've got a great set-up. If you then stick the three of them together in a house with no exit, you've limited your plot options drastically. They're just going to kill one another, aren't they?

Not that I will spoil the reading experience by revealing whether they do kill one another, but no reader on Earth will expect them to while away the time playing pinochle. The best moments in A Reliable Wife are near the beginning, when anything might still happen. None of the characters is who he or she seems to be. The best scene of all consists of Tony Moretti, who is really Andy Truitt, denying to Catherine Land that he is Andy Truitt. She knows he's not Tony Moretti, and he knows she knows it. But they play the scene for the benefit of a couple of Pinkerton detectives, unaware that the Pinkertons also know that Tony is really Andy, and that Catherine knows it.

If that sounds postmodern, it is; this is no Edith Wharton novel, despite featuring a smash-up in the snow. Goolrick is at his best when his characters construct elaborate, pointless deceptions. His powers flag when the characters get earnest. What's building toward wicked Jacobean tragedy cools off and becomes rather solemn stuff.

Goolrick explains in an afterword that he was galvanized into writing A Reliable Wife by reading Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. Lesy's book (which I haven't read) is apparently a grim local-color saga, inspiring Goolrick to set his novel in a snowbound small-town Midwest, somewhere between Sinclair Lewis and Hell Itself. Remarkably, though, A Reliable Wife has no local color to speak of. I've spent considerable time in the region where it's set, but I recognized nothing. The snow obliterates local features, so for much of its wintry passage the novel could be anywhere. There's virtually no natural description, there's no local community to speak of, and the great house where much of the action takes place is completely fantastic. It's odd that such a locally-specific concept should have such a generic execution.

But enough about A Reliable Wife is odd enough that, despite its recourse to melodrama, it has been a bestseller (especially at airport bookstores, where I scored my copy). It's a cut above the usual historical thriller. One thing you know if you follow lection is that if I finish a book, it's got something going for it: my start-to-finish reading ratio is absurdly high. I finished A Reliable Wife in a couple of days.

Goolrick, Robert. A Reliable Wife. 2009. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2010.