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April 8, 2009

Robert Goolrick: Writing A RELIABLE WIFE

Posted by carol
Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife has garnered a lot of fans here at and elsewhere. Last month librarians Sonja Somerville, Robin Beerbower and Elizabeth Hughes shared their opinions of the novel. I've selected it as my latest Bets On title --- it has a plot that continually delivers and propels the story faster and faster until the final page. It's a brilliant book. Read on to find out what insight Goolrick has to share about A Reliable Wife.

I believe that goodness is the only thing that matters. It is the only thing we have to give to our friends and lovers; it is all we will be remembered for after we're gone. It is the soul's wallet, all we have to spend on any given day.

In A Reliable Wife, I wanted to write a novel about lives that yearn for goodness the way plants bend toward the light. These people are not, at the outset, good people. They have done bad things, they have lived thoughtlessly and they find themselves bankrupt, with only the faintest glimmers of hope left in their hearts.

For Ralph Truitt, that hope comes in the form of an ad he places for a mail order bride, not because he has any hope left for romance, but because he wants to restore something that was lost to him, a home, a household, a family.

For Catherine Land, her hope takes the perverse form of pure greed. She will not live, she says, without love or money. But what she truly wants --- to find a lost sister and to redeem a ravaged childhood --- are not the things she thinks she wants.

And Antonio Moretti is also looking for vengeance for his lost childhood. Of them all, he is the one who has most completely abandoned hope, and thrown himself into a life of transitory pleasures. But what he wants, as they all do, are the simplest things. They want to be clean again, they want the honesty and simplicity of love.

The story plays out in the bleak winter of 1907 in the barren snowy landscape of Wisconsin, a landscape that amazed me during my trips there --- the lack of comfort, of warmth --- and it was created both out of personal experience, and through a rereading of Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, first published 35 years ago, a brilliant and important work.

I didn't intend A Reliable Wife to be an historical novel. The fact that it's set in 1907 is merely a device to isolate the characters in a temporal as well as geographical way. It was a time, like ours, when madness and machinery were baring their fangs, but it is not meant to be an explication of that or any period in our history.

The loss of innocence in childhood is a subject which moves me deeply, as anybody who has read my memoir, The End of the World As We Know It, can understand. Childhood was lost to me, and can never be replaced, as it can never be fully restored to Catherine, Ralph and Antonio. No matter how hard they try.

But other things can fill the void. When I was a child, I read one of my sister's books, The Park that Spring Forgot, first published in the early '40s. In it, there is a bleak garden to which spring, for some inexplicable reason, does not come one year. The narrative is about the effort to find Spring herself, and bring her back to the garden. In the end, she returns and, as she walks over the dead grass, the garden miraculously returns to life.

This scene stuck in my mind, a symbol that what was lost to me could somehow miraculously be restored, and became the final scene in A Reliable Wife. It is not just greenery and blossom that return; it is hope and order and possibility.

The syntax of the book was also heavily influenced by the great American poet Walt Whitman, whose work I devoured in the course of writing the novel. There is no one more expansive, more loving of the universe as a whole and America in particular than Whitman. He wrote the words I use as an epigraph of the book:

Be not dishearten'd --- Affection shall solve the problems
Of Freedom yet;
Those who love each other shall become invincible.

Life is ambiguous, and goodness is often elusive. It usually takes unexpected and more muddled forms than we had hoped for. But, in even the most damaged and corrupt soul, it still lies waiting, like the wintry park in my sister's book. Its return, its springing to life again, in all its simplicity and affection, is everything.

Not everyone can be saved. For some the effort is too great and the chance comes too late. But some can. And when the moment of saving grace comes, it comes to stay, and it is the great miracle. The great, great miracle.

---Robert Goolrick