Jane Shapiro: The Dangerous Husband

Jane Shapiro
The Dangerous Husband
Little, Brown

IN OUR MODERN world, where teenagers execute breathtaking bike acrobatics on The Gravity Games and Volkswagens keep perfect time to post-rock grooves, perhaps the worst sin is to be awkward. The bungler, the butterfingers, the klutz: These are the pariahs of our keystroke kingdom, the jesters in our cell-phone citadel of streamlined efficiency. It's no wonder, then, that a novelist should exploit the inherent comedy of such a figure by making him the central character in a farce, as Jane Shapiro does in her second book, The Dangerous Husband.

It's not exactly that Dennis is some kind of yokel; he's actually a wealthy ex-sociologist who lives his life according to principles outlined by his hero, Erving Goffman, in inspirational tomes such as The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Having retreated from a "bruising episode at the college," Dennis is now hard at work (after a fashion) on a novel, but his main occupation seems to be endangering his newlywed wife with his accident-prone ways. Thus he becomes the dangerous husband of the book's title, a bumbling oaf whose very existence, she comes to believe, threatens hers.

The bulk of the novel plays endless variations on this theme, ranging from "Den happily pinching my nipple, too hard" to his dropping an iron skillet on her foot--a bone-shattering checkmate that places her in a "Percocet haze" and prevents her from leaving on a photo shoot that would have taken her out of harm's way for a week. (It should be noted that Dennis wreaks plenty of havoc on himself, too, at one point sitting bare-cheeked on a glass table during a frisky bout of sex.) To achieve some semblance of plot, our narrator details her dalliance with a hired killer (a published novelist by day, who has to explain to his new contractor that her attraction to him is the result of psychological transference). She can't go through with the plan, so she runs away with Dennis's pet albino frog, Bianca--actually the most interesting character in the book--then returns home to see things through to at least one of their bitter ends.

So drenched in irony is this tale, however, that it's hard to divine Shapiro's intent. At times the story seems like an allegory of marriage, a boxing-ring rendition of the harm young lovers inflict on each other. It also, occasionally, gives off the pleasant aroma of a slow-broil yuppie roast, smoking out the boredom, complacency, and artistic pretension of that demographic. But mostly The Dangerous Husband comes off as a single-note Noh play of the Nineties, a one-trick pony on which the tired battle of the sexes is forced to ride.

There's nothing wrong with such single-mindedness, of course, but then the writing better be damn good. Here, there are moments that seem lifted from a Cosmopolitan survey: "His shoulders and hands were big and strong, since he was; his hair was curly brown, his skin high-colored, his eyes light, eyelashes long, temperature hot. What a vivid guy in so many ways." Elsewhere a more lyrical voice takes control, as in the narrator's descriptions of her daily photograph ("Day 414: Dennis, sleeve rolled, and a big Band-Aid, black around the edges, protecting a mystery gash on his forearm"); or carefully oblique snippets of narrative such as "On the Sunday before Labor Day, he gave me a concussion. Never mind how. A violent blow to a soft structure. It felt exactly like what it is."

Vacillating between these modes, this black comedy ultimately is best read as a cinematic blueprint for the star-powered vehicle it will no doubt become.

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