Post Road Magazine #10

The Dangerous Husband by Jane Shapiro
Michael Griffith

E. L. Doctorow writes somewhere of the kind of marriage that should, for the safety of bystanders, be stashed in one of those mesh steel cages bomb squads use and detonated under lock and key. Jane Shapiro’s The Dangerous Husband (1999) tells the story of such a relationship—a bond made up half of heartsong and half of headlock. This novel depicts domesticity as a death struggle . . . but don’t expect the boiled rabbits and glinting blades of popular films about castrating women and viciously jealous men. In Shapiro’s novel every villainy is cheerfully inadvertent, all violence at least half accidental, and the dominant tone is, as Shapiro has put it, “desperately jolly,” a comic giddiness that ultimately carries more than a tinge of terror. It’s a tone that owes much to Lorenz Hart, whose lyric for “To Keep My Love Alive,” by Shapiro’s account, was rattling in her brain-pan as she wrote The Dangerous Husband. Hart’s song is from the point of view of a woman who weds for life—several times. Whenever love’s bloom starts to fade, threatened by any of the petty annoyances of cohabitation—bad habit, sour breath, or plain boredom—she briskly clips the stem, and does so with a motive born, she believes, of a sort of purity . . . “To Keep My Love Alive.” Rarely was murder jauntier, or more playfully rhymed, than in lines like these:

Sir Philip played the harp, I cussed the thing
I crowned him with his harp to bust the thing
And now he plays where harps are just the thing
To keep my love alive.

The Dangerous Husband opens with our couple’s first meeting, at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by a mutual acquaintance. Both the narrator and her husband-to-be, Dennis, are New Yorkers around forty, wary, with hyperdeveloped defense mechanisms—citizens of the world. But within minutes that world has shrunk to a circle of two, and they’re so deeply embroiled in their tête-à-tête that the hostess has to shout to get their attention. When she finally succeeds, “As one, we looked up. All down the table, faces were smiling at us in the candlelight, the fresh pink faces of twenty unfamiliar, apparently friendly but completely uninformed persons, waiting in vain for my beloved and me to find our way back to their pale and irrelevant world. After a long moment spent gazing at us, they applauded.”

So it begins, with a repartee akin to joyous combat, and the rest of the world ceases to exist. Soon the narrator and Dennis are married and

ensconced in his Brooklyn brownstone. Their friends and family—almost everyone else—drop away; this is a novel essentially confined to one house, one relationship, two people. And the distance from tête-à-tête to mano a mano is never quite as far as one might like; it doesn’t take long for claustrophobia to set in, or for Dennis’s clumsiness, which the narrator initially found charming, to become annoying, then disquieting, and then—as bumps and bruises escalate to unintentional maimings of self and spouse and finally to a string of pet deaths—dangerous. Here’s the narrator, a few months in, musing on loneliness:

In loneliness, as we know, anyone who cares for you can become the object of a kind of vagrant love: dry cleaner, hair cutter, naturally any masseuse if you visit one; occasionally the doctor; always the nurse. If any of these evinces a bad attitude you can be crushed like a pip. Otherwise, depths of gratitude. The guy who fixes the frame of your eyeglasses (which you will have broken yourself, when you’re lonely, by some method like forgetting they’re in bed with you and fitfully rolling back and forth and crushing them in the night), this wonderful simple calm optician, holding up your glasses in delicate fingers, gazing at the glasses to see what’s wrong, reconstituting them easily with tiny tools, rolling in close on his rolling chair, fluently setting the glasses straight back onto your face—he’s your beloved. His fingertips graze the hair above your ears, and all week those follicles hark back to that fastidious touch.

Much of what makes the follicles sing all week, of course, is the con-trast between the optician’s “fastidious touch” and “delicate fingers” and the flailing maladroitness of one’s husband, who can barely bring a glass to his lips without either breaking teeth or hemorrhaging. Another appeal of such fleeting intimacy is that optician-love is uncomplicated either by shared history or close knowledge; the touch is soon over and can be rec-ollected (even embroidered) in tranquility. It offers the same consolation that braining one’s harpist husband does: perfect control. The object of one’s affection isn’t underfoot to mess things up.

More and more, Dennis’s love seems a kind of havoc. He nearly severs his own penis in an act of love; then he breaks his wife’s toe, and weeks in a plaster cast make her even more solitary and estranged. Deprived of human contact, the narrator takes as confidante and advisor her husband’s albino frog, Bianca, which occupies a basement bucket, and with the frog’s help decides to flee to save herself—but she can’t go through with it.

She and Dennis are bound; they are mates for life. Till death do us part means, sooner or later, that only one partner can survive—and the narrator decides (and who, honestly, can denounce the instinct?) that she wants to be the one. At loose ends, she . . . hires a killer.

Shapiro is working here in a peculiar and delightful subgenre: slap-stick tragedy. The Dangerous Husband takes place for the most part on that razor’s edge where comedy is both most frightening and (in a sly, side-long, creepy way) funniest. I’ve always disliked the term “black comedy.” It implies that there exists what might be called “white comedy,” humor from which all darkness has been purged. But to do so would deprive the comic of all its power, its menace; white comedy, like white magic, is a weak and pallid thing, the stuff of cartoons. Magic involves meddling with fate to achieve one’s own ends, and noble or not, well meant or not, such interventions have a sinister element. The same is true of humor, which at its best is not black so much as chiaroscuro: it relies on the jarring inter-play of shadows. It is an aggressive art.

Here’s the narrator meeting with her hit man, a glib young novelist who moonlights as a husband-killer (please note the implication that nov-elist and killer are professions not just compatible but closely linked):

He reached for his water glass, and I jumped. But he only sipped, the goblet so level the ice didn’t clink. Delicately, he set it down, like a dancer hitting a mark. No fuses blew. Nothing splashed, shattered, bled, or burst into flame. This is what it had come to: impressed that a man could set a glass on a table.

I love the rueful tone at the end—there’s self-justification in it (Reader, look what I’d been driven to), and sadness (“This is what it had come to”), and a helpless attraction to the killer’s sheer physical compe-tence, but also an underlying sense that she’s messing with dark forces here, with the kind of man who can command the forces of physics, the sort of man capable of making his way through life without a wake of destruction . . . except that he’s a man she’s hiring precisely to leave such a wake, and to do so (the words turn around and taunt her) by splashing her husband, shattering him, bleeding him, making him burst into flame.

Following the publication of Shapiro’s first novel, After Moondog, her friend Joyce Carol Oates remarked that the characters in that book could never “do anything really bad to each other,” and Shapiro has said that as she embarked on The Dangerous Husband, she set out to prove her friend wrong. She wanted to write “a sad and comic book about marriage, in which everybody does truly horrible things.”

One of the things I most admire in the novel is the ingenious way Shapiro finesses this issue. People commit awful acts every day, often—or especially—to the ones they love most . . . but they don’t do them, for the most part, with malign intent. How often does one encounter genuine malice in daily life—and how complicated is it, how interesting, except as pathology? Malice is an oversimplification that belongs mainly to bad art and cheap allegory. Movies and TV make use of it because it can be used to wring uncomplicated emotion from a viewer, but Shapiro is after more elusive quarry. She’s written a novel in which people do truly horrendous things to each other despite, for the most part, meaning well. A husband who intends harm is dull, a cliché, but a husband whose love takes the form of accidental but irresistible vandalism is both truer to life and more intriguing. The waste Dennis lays is both more poignant and more awful for being meant as amorous expression; the gravest threat we face is from those who literally love us to death.

In this light, Shapiro’s choice of a comic tone is not perverse but nec-essary. The sources of the humor in The Dangerous Husband are irony and unreliability. If the story were told in deadly earnest, with the author playing partisan moralist, the result would be both different and lesser. Instead, Shapiro puts the story in the hands of a fallible narrator, someone who like most of us is both fundamentally decent and ruthlessly self-protective; everything is filtered through her (mostly) well-meaning (mostly) helplessness. The wife tries to be forthright about her sins and motives, but no matter how scrupulous and self-aware she is, this is her story, framed her way. Hers is a subtler unreliability than, say, Humbert Humbert’s or Charles Kinbote’s, but we’re never allowed to forget the ways in which—though without anything as gross and simple as malice—our narrator, a professional photographer who obsessively documents the marriage, decides where to place the camera and when to snap the shutter.

This unfairness doesn’t escape Dennis, either. Early on, during a visit to his mother’s house, dutiful politeness forces the couple to press their noses to the armrests of a pair of Adirondack chairs—to smell the pinewoods in them. Dennis leaves a mucusy slick spot, which his wife promptly photographs. He challenges her, levels an accusation that is, she has to admit, “extremely reasonable”:

This is bullshit of the usual stripe! This is another story you’re telling! Making a story is just selecting what to advert to! . . . And the story you particularly have selected to tell, and the story you keep telling, every goddamn day, no matter what I try to do, is a crummy, lousy, damning, mean-spirited story about what a complete jerk I am!

The Dangerous Husband deftly and intricately explores what Shapiro has called the “lonelinesses and collusions of couples,” but also a few par-allel lonelinesses and collusions, such as those between narrator and murderer, narrator and reader. This is a remarkable account of how one woman tries, one way and another and another and another, to keep her love alive—even if it means killing him.

Michael Griffith's two books are Bibliophilia (2003) and Spikes (2001), both from Arcade. His work has appeared in journals including New England Review, Southwest Review, Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review, Southern Review, and Salmagundi. He is the recipient of a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Fiction, and he serves as editor of the Yellow Shoe Fiction Series for LSU Press.

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