THE DANGEROUS HUSBAND
By Jane Shapiro
Little, Brown. 249 pp. $22.95
Reviewed by Carolyn See
Some people may read The Dangerous Husband as a protest against the "brutishness" of men, but this dazzling little book goes far beyond that flat-footed, unimaginative premise. This is about something far less spoken about and perhaps far more prevalent: something that we all pray never happens to us -- and yet the idea that it might suggests that it already has. I suppose I can't be coy about this: I burst out laughing on page 54 and couldn't stop until the end of this novel, not necessarily because of Dennis, the fictional husband here (who bolts from his marriage bed to simultaneously urinate, drink from a mason jar and mutter sweet nothings to his creepy dog), but because of the recovered memory of my own sainted ex-husband, who used to blend up raw liver into a red smoothie for breakfast, drink it down in one sucking gulp, then favor me with an innocent and horrifying fluorescent-pink smile.
And I would think: What kind of human being is he, to drink blended raw liver in the morning, and then smile? (Later, in saner days, I was forced to ponder a far scarier question: What kind of person was I to have found and married a perfectly decent young man who felt the need to drink raw liver in the morning and then smile bravely in the face of a wife who viewed him by then as something quite outside the boundaries of the human race?)
Why does a woman get married in the first place? The wife here, a photographer who's been living a harrowing New York City life, sums up her own case succinctly: "I was tired and I was broke." She meets her soon-to-be husband at one of those terribly unsettling Thanksgiving dinners made up of rootless singles and strangers -- orphans of the urban storm who don't even have a cousin to offer them some holiday turkey -- but here at this dinner is a terribly handsome, unnervingly rich, amiable and unmarried guy. What a miracle! They fall in love and soon they're married. Our narrator has snapped up this man, this poor, hapless Dennis, this warm, decent guy, the way an immigrant fresh off the boat might buy a shiny, undrivable used car.
Dennis doesn't have a mean bone in his body, but he's strange. He's just been fired from his job and they've changed the locks on the building where he worked. He keeps a pet albino frog, Bianca, in a bucket. Bianca doesn't have much of a life, hanging baleful and motionless in that bucket with a lid on it, and Dennis's wife has to think: What kind of man would keep an albino frog in a bucket in the basement? The handsome husband who used to read aloud to his wife and beam at her over his winsome spectacles has turned into a bit of a beast: "For breakfast Dennis would buy a bagel across the street, carry it home half-crushing it in his fist, tear it mangled from its small bag, lavishly butter it (glazing all his fingers), then hurl buttered bagel hunks in the direction of his face and pour mugs of milky coffee down his pants." He's already sat down on a glass-topped coffee table and splintered it into bits. He's about to drop a skillet on her foot, and that's just the beginning.
The Dangerous Husband provides us with a close, hard-hearted, sadly funny rereading of that old fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast." The Beast can turn into a prince only by Beauty's leap of faith and charitable kiss. (I don't care about your albino frog! I don't care about your blended liver!) But what if the Beauty in question just isn't up for it? The marriage this wife has looked forward to as shelter and domestic companionship simply doesn't pan out. Their friends fall sheepishly away. They aren't even asked back to that lady's next Thanksgiving dinner. Up in the second story of Dennis's prosperous Brooklyn Heights house on a February Saturday, his wife almost thinks, she allows herself to approach the notion that "I was in a serious bind; and there was something else I surely saw then but didn't actually think yet (though I would, of course, think it later, many times, exactly this way) about us together and each of us apart alone in the world." Later this tortuous prose gets refined to an awful plainness: She's "lonely as a bug."
Meanwhile her inexplicable husband has been wrecking the furniture, and his pets, and her, all by accident or by a "beastliness" of nature that he can't control. She correctly assesses this match of theirs as a fight to the finish instead of a happily-ever-after dream, and begins to figure out a plan, and then another plan, and then another. Dennis can't let her leave because he just as correctly assesses his own situation: Too many women haven't worked out for him, too many of his beloved pets have died mysterious deaths, too many friends have cast cold contemptuous eyes on him, too many companies have fired his sorry self and then changed the locks on the buildings.
There's an enduring myth that men, in our society, can be redeemed by the love of a good woman. That myth contains two very strange beliefs: that men need, at some level, to be redeemed, and that women are good. This absolutely brilliant novel tells the story of an unredeemable man, and a wife who -- almost by definition -- is just as dangerous as he is.
Carolyn See's reviews appear every Friday in Style. Her most recent book is the novel "The Handyman."