As clever as it is heartbreaking, this comic masterpiecenow in paperbacktells the story of a marriage that is not, after all, exactly like anyone else's. Or is it?
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Edition description:||1ST BACK B|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)|
Read an Excerpt
We were introduced at one of those theatrical, poignant Manhattan Thanksgivings, a splendid party (singular guests, including small precocious chess-playing children and a cousin of Jim Jarmusch's; cornucopia of gourds and wildflowers pouring down the center of the trestle table; old family silver bought at a yard sale in Maine) in the clever, threadbare Horatio Street home of our shared acquaintance Lydia, a magazine editor who bravely orchestrates holiday feasts for the friends who have become her family and always takes in strays: This guy and I were the strays.
"Help me," he said in greeting. "I'm in a mess."
"I'm not the one to save you!" I snapped, and we laughed like maniacs.
He was holding his canapé plate as though clutching a railing and tipping white wine onto his trousers; my first act as his new friend was to swab with my cocktail napkin at his attractive lap. I had just finished recuperating from a romance with a fellow photographer that had ended as badly as expected-a bolter, and he bolted. Then, in a convalescent mood, I'd been taking some walks alongside a large psychiatric social worker and seeing some French movies with a small, wiry urologist, and these goalless activities had grown too noticeably noncommital for everybody involved; we were all three of us, medium, short, and tall, depressed, you may think, and maybe so. I had figured this was maturity-the end of gullibility, exaggerated expectations, being in a rush. Still, I occasionally caught myself in a sort of prayer: Somebody come to me. All these years and I had never managed to be married. This guy with the spilled wine, for his part, as I would learn immediately, was imagining his own new life, nothing involving any woman-he was going to write a novel.
"I'm so bad at impression management," he said.
"'Impression management'? Are you making a joke?"
"I'm thinking about Erving Goffman-sociologist who wrote Asylums? Goffman also wrote more interestingly than anybody about almost everything that happens when people get together, including spilling your drink. He's dead now. It's a real loss."
"I'm sorry." Suddenly I was aware of being stupidly charmed, as in the presence of, say, Sting, or Danny DeVito.
"Even though I only met him once, Goffman was my mentor."
"Okay, tell me."
Our first topic, then, Erving Goffman, late hero. Goffman who brilliantly delineates the ways in which social situations offer opportunities to convey flattering information about oneself even as those same occasions are inevitably risky times when unflattering information may be revealed-say, perhaps, about one's physical aplomb or lack thereof, he told me, grinning, standing slightly bent with the big wet spot on the front of his slacks. "Goffman himself was incapable of attending a dinner party without making the hostess cry." Goffman who in his book Interaction Ritual quotes an assertion attributed to Karl Wallenda on the subject of returning to the high wire after the Wallenda troupe's fatal accident in Detroit: "To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting." I was excited. Yes, the time is now-I will inch out on the wire! I gazed into the man's beautiful, fast-darkening eyes. Is this guy getting an erection? I asked myself, with the normal admixture of fear and hope, as together we prepared to kiss the past good-bye.
"Take a walk with me," he said, "and we'll start our conversation."
Once around the block at a measured pace through gray November air, doing some of the talking we'd apparently been saving up all our years for just such a moment.
How long ago it seems. We were chatting our little hearts out.
I told him about my first photograph, shot in 1971 in subway light at the Thirty-fourth Street station with my first range finder, when I was nineteen: an old man and an old woman sharing a laugh.
I told him about my thumbprint cyanotypes-to this day, I still love the giant whorls swirling lusciously in all that beautiful nineteenth-century blueness. "Hands have been used by artists in so many cultures," I averred, straining to attach some perhaps tenuous but nonetheless arguably genuine sociological (or possibly anthropological-still in the ballpark) import to my work. As we rounded the first corner, he held my wrist, causing me to blurt out useless technical information: "The paper is prepared with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferrous cyanide, dried away from bright light!" I wanted to forestall his thinking, For the last five years this woman has been taking pictures of her thumb. And, strolling at his side through an arcadian Greenwich Village, I saw myself breaking free of hitherto unfelt chains: I've worked with blue too long.
As soon as we met, in short, we fell in love. It hit us hard, the way love is supposed to, here in America. It made us feel nauseated and carry ourselves tenderly. Sudden passion. Unlooked-for communion. Hope of repair.
When sociologist Erving Goffman speaks of fatefulness, this is surely what he means. Secretly we were starved twins, suddenly at the end of our lifelong search for our other halves. We were forty years old and, now I see, immaculate.
* * *
Back at Lydia's, we switched the placecards in order to sit side by side. He shoved my chair under me with a refreshing disregard for ceremony, and we talked on.
"Goffman was really a symbolic interactionist," he murmured, "and a dramaturge. He understood that our interactions with each other are symbolic, and that their purposes are twofold: one, to further our aims. And, two, and crucially, to save face."
"Here's the great thing Goffman revealed: Life is lived in the evocative tense."
"What does that mean?"
"That the self is situationally constructed. That, by and large, people are not, as they imagine themselves to be, governed by an inner core of values."
"That's only half right," I whispered. "Do you believe that literally? You wouldn't deny that some of our values are absolute and do determine how we act. There are certain things you and I know we simply would not do."
"Yes," he whispered, "you think that, of course. Goffman illustrates how you're wrong. Goffman shows the ways in which our rational ideas about our values and goals are always secondary to ego protection. What makes him fascinating is his depiction of a huge variety of face-saving mechanisms."
"No no," I whispered. "In social situations, yes. But in more serious matters, ultimately our values are going to determine what we do. They just are."
"You'd be surprised," he whispered.
"Well, no I would not," I whispered, with that urgent womanly sincerity that bespeaks sexual arousal.
He countered with a frankly masculine grin, appreciative, indulgent, and calm.
My underpants seemed dampish. Actually, why were we whispering? This was a dinner table and we were entitled to have dinner conversation! "Look," I whispered. "Here's something I know: I am not going to kill. I mean unless it was in some extreme self-defense situation, to save my own life, and that's just normal. Otherwise, even if I felt abused or victimized, believe me, I'm not murdering anybody."
"Sure you are, if your ego is sufficiently threatened. You'll suddenly find that you-"
"Are you actually maintaining, in a more than theoretical way, that people, in real life, if their 'ego is threatened,' will-"
"What I'm saying," he whispered, "and all I'm saying, is that people are more collaborators with each other than they are individuals guided by a moral compass. What Goffman demonstrates are the myriad ways this gets played out-the number of gestures we make, the repertoire of gestures-"
Somewhere there was a musical clinking and a thick silence fell. I whispered, "I understand you're trying to say that we-"
"Hel-lo?" a woman-our hostess!-sang.
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. Of course we ate almost nothing, he and I. When the pumpkin pie and apple crisp were passed, we were still animated, still fresh. Candles low and guttering. The other guests, strangers all, lolling around us obtunded with tryptophan. We talked on.
I tasted a tiny drip of whipped cream with my finger. He shifted his foot and I glanced under the table. Brand-new highly polished palomino-colored wingtip. He rested its edge against the edge of my boot, and I can tell you I felt his heart beating like mine, through two layers of shoe leather and hose.
(c) 1999 by Jane Shapiro"
What People are Saying About This
Is Jane Shapiro Laurie Colwin's evil twin, or did she somehow manage to channel Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe simultaneously? Either way, The Dangerous Husband is a singular achievement, the first of a whole new genre-postfeminist slapstick tragicomedyas entertaining as it is disturbing. Author of Turn of the Century
Reading Group Guide
1. During the dinner party where they first fall in love, the heroine tells her future husband, "Here's something I know: I am not going to kill. I mean unless it was in some extreme self-defense situation, to save my own life, and that's just normal. Otherwise, even if I felt abused or victimized, believe me, I'm not murdering anybody." How could this woman evolve into a potential murderer? Was she driven mad, or just pushed too far?
2. To the casual observer, Dennis is an ideal husband- adoring, attractive, affluent-and with him the narrator has an enviable life. Why then do you think she ends up falling in love with strangers instead of the husband who trips over himself to please her? Have you ever had a similar experience?
3. The female mugger, the woman in the restaurant rest room-female strangers automatically recognize the heroine's peril and her homicidal tendencies. Did you experience a flash of recognition here as well? Why is it that many women share that murderous impulse?
4. In many ways the narrator feels trapped, both figuratively and literally. (Even some of the doors to her house are nailed shut.) And yet during most of the story she's still physically able to leave. Why do you think she doesn't? When she does run away from home, why does she come back?
5. Did you find Dennis a completely sympathetic character, or an increasingly sinister one? Did your feelings change when the heroine learned the fate of Dennis's three previous wives?
6. There's a lot of sex in this book, but as the story progresses, the couple's lovemaking sessions begin to end abruptly. Did you share the narrator's befuddlement? Why do you think Dennis leaves her in such a peculiar way?
7. Pets in this novel often end up the innocent victims of their owners. In what ways do they also represent their owners? How do their individual fates parallel their owners'?
8. As the story unfolds, this couple becomes increasingly isolated-their friends don't call them, the woman who introduced them claims not to have been involved. Is their loneliness their own doing, are they in fact unlikable people, or is it simply a condition of modern marriage?
9. The novel is presented in the form of a testimonial-the narrator is telling her story to an unseen audience, making an attempt to set the record straight. As she says early on, "Now, these two years later, I don't know much but I'll tell you all I know. You convict me if you will." To whom do you think she's speaking? Do you believe her version of the story?
10. There's a fairy-tale element to the story -Dennis is the handsome prince, he and his bride are poised to live happily ever after, there's even a wise frog offering advice. How much of the story as a whole did you think was pure fantasy? Was there a particular point where you felt the story departed from reality?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The reviews that I read of this book before I decided to read it were not very good, and now that I have finished I have to concur. I do like books a little off from the mainstream, but this story was just absurd, and a waste of time. It seems like ¿the dangerous husband¿? tricked the protagonist by not being clumsy and hurting himself and others until they were married, and now she can¿t leave. What to do?
I discovered this obscure novel only because I liked one of the author¿s pieces in Best American Short Stories in recent years. It¿s a very curious book¿simultaneously a very light read with extremely dark subject matter.The narrator¿a woman around 40 with a good wit¿falls in love with Dennis, a charming and devoted yet lethally accident-prone man. After a whirlwind affair that leads to marriage, Dennis sweeps his wife off of her feet, only to drop her on the tile floor. He breaks his beloved¿s arm with a hug and ruins an intimate encounter on a glass table by breaking it into shards of glass.Dennis keeps an albino frog in a bucket in the basement and showers love on a hyperactive dog whose best trick is to pee on the rug. Although over the top, this is a dark and unsettling farce. If you like the idea of a black comedy about relationships with plenty of sex and the question of whether too much love can kill you (literally), you might like this book. For me it wasn¿t fantastic, but Shapiro¿s amusing voice kept me entertained.
I enjoyed this book because it struck a chord with me...as it will with many women. Yes, it was exaggerated, for the purpose of humor, but there were many basic truths in this story of a woman who is amazed and overwhelmed by her husband. It was indeed funny and fun to read. A breath of fresh air.
Falling in love is for the very young so how at 40 she wonders why she, a logical photographer, loves a wealthy former professor turn wannabe novelist, Dennis. She quickly marries Dennis in a hundred yard dash of a courtship, expecting to live happily ever after with him. However, their short courtship never prepared her to her new spouse¿s Gerald Ford-like clumsiness. Dennis is perpetually falling, crashing, and smashing into things and her. He has smacked his wife's toe with a skillet, accidentally twists her neck, drops her on a solid floor, hugs her into a broken arm and ends up by bestowing his spouse with a concussion. Her body color is head to toe black and blue. Now frightened of being in the same city with her beloved, she soon learns that he goes through wives as people go through shoes. She knows that for her to survive her loving but lethal mate, she must kill him first. THE DANGEROUS HUSBAND is a great satire that takes readers down a surreal universe where love is the most dangerous emotion known. The readers will continuously laugh at the slapstick humor that spices through the suspense of what will happen next. Dennis is so pathetic that he is purposely drawn as a caricature of the caring hunk that stars in most romance novels. However, the narrator owns the novel with her ironic asides that begin with a deep abiding love but converts to preservation that would astound the Survivor crowd. As with her wonderful MOONDOG, Jane Shapiro exhibits her weird wit that leaves the reader with a loving look at ¿The War of the Roses¿. Harriet Klausner