There are precious few books that beckon for a re-read immediately after the last page is turned. My relationship with Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife (published by the always-reliable Algonquin Books) has seen the book less beckon and more demand, forcefully and insistently, to be read again, a mere month after I initially finished it.
The set-up of this, Goolrick’s first novel (following his highly-acclaimed memoir The End Of The World As We Know It, which I’ve not yet read), is simple enough: Wisconsin businessman Ralph Truitt, seeking what we’ll call here a “new beginning”, places a newspaper ad reading as follows:
Country Businessman Seeks
Compelled By Practical,
Not Romantic Reasons.
Reply By Letter.
Ralph Truitt. Truitt. Wisconsin.
He finds his “practical”, “reliable” wife in one Catherine Land who, hungry for more than the emptiness she currently knows, after a brief correspondence with Truitt leaves her life behind to join him in his.
Simple enough of a plot, indeed. But if plots are owls, in A Reliable Wife the metaphorical owls are not what they seem. In the book’s second chapter, at the first encounter of Land, Goolrick writes
Catherine Land liked the beginnings of things. The pure white possibility of the empty room, the first kiss, the first swipe at larceny. And endings, she likes endings, too. The drama of the smashing glass, the dead bird, the tearful goodbye, the last awful word which could never be unsaid or unremembered.
Instantly, a strange and ominous finality is draped across the image of Land, only further enhanced by the way Goolrick writes her precise activities, both mental and physical, as she, traveling by train from her past life to that of Wisconsin, Truitt, and her future:
She knew all the details of her new life. The details were not a problem. She had rehearsed them for hours and months. The phrases. The false memories. The little piece of music. She had so little life of her own, so little self, that it was easy to take on the mannerisms of another with ease and conviction. Her new self may have been no more inhabited, but it was no less real.
Still, despite the slow and early coloring of Catherine Land as a shade of gray (an interesting juxtaposition of middle-ground given her stated preferences for beginnings and ends, skipping the center entirely), the true threads of tale in A Reliable Wife unwind slowly and surely, as Goolrick, with a master’s pace, allows his story to be told by the characters in it.
And, speaking of characters-with Catherine Land, Goolrick has crafted one of the most compelling female characters in recent literary fiction. Not to give the game away too much, but her fire, passion, drive and sheer force of will reminded me near-immediately of Ron Rash’s Serena, from his powerful 2008 book of the same name.
When I went to see Goolrick read from A Reliable Wife a week ago at Barnes and Noble on…Broadway and something (oh come ON I’m new to New York, these cross-streets and avenues and all that haven’t gelled for me yet. Give me a Peachtree and a Sycamore and I’ll know how to find my way home), he read the second chapter-essentially the brief, compelling introduction to Catherine Land (the tip of the iceberg, really).
During Q&A with an appreciative audience (most of whom had, seemingly, read and loved the book), Goolrick revealed that Catherine’s surname was chosen to be indicative of her true lust: for power. At her base, in many levels, Catherine Land is a hole to feed, a hungry force of nature that is just one of the many facets of what makes A Reliable Wife such an incredible book.
As I said at the outset of this, I’m going to re-read A Reliable Wife very, very soon. And then, undoubtedly, again-it’s like walking head-first into blinding but gorgeous blizzard: ensnaring, harrowing, and an all-encompassing experience. Watch those best of ’09 lists for this one.