An exploration of love and despair
Winters in northern Wisconsin are cold and spare. The open land stretches out, white and bleak as far as the eye can see, and for Ralph Truitt, that emptiness doesn't end at the solid walls of his luxurious home. Although he is the wealthiest man in Truitt, Wis., in the year 1907, for the 20 years since he lost his wife and children, Ralph Truitt has found life to be as barren as this landscape.
"Hell could be like this," he thinks as he waits for a train to arrive. "It could be darker every minute. It could be cold enough to sear the skin from your bones."
Truitt has reason to know hell. When he was a child, his Bible-touting mother drove a needle through his hand to illustrate the idea of eternal punishment, and as an adult he has hated himself for the lusts that he believes have made his life miserable. When he reaches out for solace, advertising for "a reliable wife," he seems to be making a small, desperate gesture back toward a more gentle view of humanity. But neither Truitt, nor the strangely beautiful woman who arrives on that train are entirely what they seem. Between the two of them and Truitt's estranged son are bonds of love, hate, and desire that pull each character toward desperation, and even death.
Debut novelist Robert Goolrick has managed a minor miracle. In the kind of precise, literary prose that breathes life into his complicated characters, Goolrick, author of an acclaimed memoir, has also managed a rousing historical potboiler, an organic mystery rooted in the real social ills of turn-of-the-century America. Whether writing about the farms of Wisconsin or the fleshpots of St. Louis, he re-creates a full-bodied, believable environment, and he peoples these worlds with characters as sensitive, as tortured as any contemporary souls. The result is a detailed exploration of love, despair, and the distance people can travel to reach each other that is as surprising, and as suspenseful, as any beach read.
Writing largely from the viewpoints of his two major characters, Truitt and his mail-order bride, Caroline, Goolrick creates a kind of haunted awareness that draws heavily on each character's unconscious. For Truitt, the world is full of symbols of hell, of punishment, and of the price he has been paying for decades. For Caroline, raised in abject poverty, it is an amoral marketplace of loss and opportunity. Having survived thus far without kindness or consideration, she misunderstands the nature of love, knowing only the monetary value of desire. And while some deeper part of herself longs to be normal, and to rescue the baby sister she had tried to raise, she fails to see the disconnect between her mercenary ways and her stunted soul. Although each hopes to find a kind of paradise with the other, they have brought their own hells with them. The question of whether they can break free of these imprisoning preconceptions is brought to a head when Truitt sends Caroline to find his son, Antonio. Like a depraved wild card, Antonio will ignite all their desires, and serve as a catalyst for a bang-up finale.
As rich a book as "A Reliable Wife" is, it is not without flaws. At times, particularly when Caroline goes to St. Louis on her quest, Goolrick's prose wallows in its sensuality. "Her mind, her speech would do her no good. She was all sensation, and hunger for more sensation," he writes, and while such description gets at the heart of her inchoate cravings, such passages can be a bit formless, and drag the story down.
But these are minor quibbles, questions of surfeit in a book that elegantly explores longing and need. All pleasures, as Truitt knows, come at a price.
Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cries and Whiskers" (Poisoned Pen Press).