By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
A RELIABLE WIFE
By Robert Goolrick
Algonquin. 291 pp. $23.95
Don't be fooled by the prissy cover or that ironic title. Robert Goolrick's first novel, "A Reliable Wife," isn't just hot, it's in heat: a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should be read in a cold shower. This is a bodice ripper of a hundred thousand pearly buttons, ripped off one at a time with agonizing restraint. It works only because Goolrick never cracks a smile, never lets on that he thinks all this overwrought sexual frustration is anything but the most serious incantation of longing and despair ever uttered in the dead of night.
The curtain rises in 1907 during a Wisconsin winter "cold enough to sear the skin from your bones." Ralph Truitt, the wealthiest man in town, stands frozen in place on a train platform, but inside he's burning with the unsated desire of 20 solitary years.
Ralph is waiting for his mail-order bride, a woman he requisitioned through a classified ad: "Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical not romantic reasons. . . . Discreet." That may sound as horny as Sunday school, but Ralph isn't entirely what he seems, standing there on the platform with "his eyes turned downward, engraved with a permanent air of condescension and grief." Inside, the 58-year-old widower is startled by the intensity of his desires, consumed with thoughts of sex and murder and madness in homes all around town. "Sometimes his loneliness was like a fire beneath his skin," Goolrick writes. "He had thought of taking his razor and slicing his own flesh, peeling back the skin that would not stop burning."
This first chapter, in which everything appears stock still, is told in a husky whisper of something lurid and painful, "the terrible whip of tragedy." Again and again, we hear this refrain, like a judgment and a curse: "These things happened."
Keep this in mind as you're scanning the personal ads in the City Paper.
When Catherine Land finally arrives, looking prim and dour, she isn't what she appears to be, either. She threw her extravagant party dresses out the train window a few miles from town, and she has hidden jewels in the hem of her black wool dress. She's not even the woman in the photo she sent Ralph during their summer of tentative correspondence. And she's carrying a bottle of arsenic and "a long and complicated scheme."
Poor Ralph has some awfully bad luck with women: the matrimonial equivalent of sailing to Europe on the Titanic and flying home on the Hindenburg. "This begins in a lie," he tells Catherine sternly as he picks up her bags. "I want you to know that I know that. . . . Whatever else, you're a liar."
All Ralph wants -- or pretends he wants -- is "a simple, honest woman. A quiet life. A life in which everything could be saved and nobody went insane." That's so hard to attain when your new bride hopes to poison you straightaway. But damned if he doesn't almost die in a spectacular riding accident while bringing her home from the station. Poor Catherine finds she's got to nurse Ralph back to health before she can start killing him.
Don't worry: I'm not giving anything away. Neither of these two steely people is playing straight with the other, and Goolrick isn't playing straight with us, either. The floor collapses in almost every chapter, and we suddenly crash through assumptions we'd thought were solid. Goolrick keeps probing at the way people force themselves not to know something -- not to believe the truth -- in order to fulfill their deepest longings.
The novel is deliciously wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence. The whole thing takes place in a fever pitch of exquisite sensations and boundless grief in a place where "the winters were long, and tragedy and madness rose in the pristine air." The word "alone" spreads through these pages like mold in the cellar, until it's everywhere.
The stillness and whiteness of the Wisconsin setting eventually give way to the lush depravity of St. Louis, lined with music halls and opium dens. Much of this section takes place in "a tented, brocaded bedroom, like a palace abandoned before a revolution."
I'm reluctant to quote much more for fear of making the book sound silly -- "Love that lived beyond passion was ephemeral. It was the gauze bandage that wrapped the wounds of your heart" -- but once you've fallen into the miasma of "A Reliable Wife," it's intoxicating. (Columbia Pictures has already grabbed the rights for what could be an inflammable movie.) I'm reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's stories with their claustrophobic atmosphere, hyper-maudlin tone and the extravagant suffering that borders on garishness. (Yes, Goolrick includes a forlorn castle, too.) These are all qualities the author displayed in his equally gothic memoir, "The End of the World as We Know It" (2007). But his inspiration for "A Reliable Wife" reportedly came from "Wisconsin Death Trip," a grim collection of antique photographs published in 1973. The editor of that book, Michael Lesy, reproduced pictures of children laid to rest and parents in shock, along with newspaper anecdotes about murder, illness, assault and insanity -- the same kinds of ghastly tales that obsess Goolrick's overheating characters.
Ultimately, this bizarre story is one of forgiveness. But the path to that salutary conclusion lies through a spectacularly orchestrated crescendo of violation and violence, a chapter you finish feeling surprised that everyone around you hasn't heard the screams, too.
You can follow Charles at twitter.com/roncharles.