Robert Goolrick has written a book that draws you in and pulls you along, a lyrical and deeply felt journey that is built on despair. From its opening scene at the train station, A Reliable Wife is filled with tension: who is Ralph Truitt waiting for? And as the train hurtles toward the small Wisconsin town and we see the transformation of the woman, we wonder: what is Catherine Land hiding?
The story itself is fantastic, in the “odd and remarkable” sense. Convinced by his mother at an early age that he was evil and filled with unnatural desires, the wealthy Ralph Truitt behaves wildly as a young man, then begins to work hard at being good. He falls in love and marries an Italian girl with little to offer but her beauty. She drives him to violence with her callous disregard, even bringing a lover from Italy into their home. Being so ill-used himself, you’d think he’d be sensitive to the ill-treatment of others, but he takes his anger with his errant wife out on his son, Antonio. The wife dies of illness, the son convinces himself that his father has murdered her, and devotes his life to living as dissolutely as he possibly can.
In the meantime, the lovely Catherine Land protects her little sister Alice, trying to keep her safe and sending her to school, making their livelihood through prostitution of one sort or another. She behaves so badly to try to accomplish so much good, it is unsurprising that her spoiled sister grows up uncaring and takes up by natural inclination the vocation that Catherine was forced into. They become estranged.
That Catherine and Antonio become lovers, through sheer chance come upon a newspaper advertisement Ralph has placed in search of “a reliable wife,” and hatch a plot to marry Catherine to Ralph so that she may murder him, gain all his worldly goods, and then bring Antonio back to his rightful home, is one turning point of the story. That Catherine ultimately undertakes to poison her husband, while filled with sorrow and regret, and that he knows what she is doing and accepts it, is another. And the final, terrible scene where Antonio rapes Catherine, is discovered by Ralph, and both Ralph and Antonio fatalistically play the roles they are doomed to play, is the third. Only Catherine’s pregnancy is a source of hope at the end of the novel.
Goolrick has said he wished to write a book about goodness and redemption. Certainly Ralph and Catherine enjoy a good measure of this, although Antonio is too damaged to accept the opportunity. What is amazing about the novel is that although each character is flawed and behaves with incredible self-absorption, they are also fully-realized, human, and the reasons for their actions ring true. This book by a lesser story-teller would have been easy to put down and not pick up again; with Goolrick telling the tale, the hard part was putting it down.
Robert Goolrick is also the author of a memoir, The End of the World as We Know It, the story of his abusive childhood and subsequent traumatic adulthood, including a suicide attempt at age 35 and time under psychiatric care. Clearly his own experiences have helped shape the novel, but this is to be expected. I have not read the memoir yet, but plan to do so. It’s particularly necessary because the bio given on the book flap is uninformative – he’s obviously in his 50s, he’s published a total of two books, and yet there is no other information besides the fact that he lives in New York City. No wife? No kids? No profession? A search of the World Wide Web serves up no additional info. And so my intrigue with the author behind the novel requires me to read the memoir, although I suspect that doing so will be painful.