I’ve just finished Robert Goolrick‘s debut novel, A Reliable Wife, which may not have been the best choice for airplane reading—its themes of perpetual deception and impending death doesn’t mix well with white-knuckling. But it does draw you in, and if its series of abuses, lusts, poisonings, and general debauchery occasionally seems over-the-top, Goolrick has a fearsome command, and his narration is a fine fit for the story he’s telling—simple but with a slightly demonic touch, like an issue of Tales From the Crypt written by Ernest Hemingway.
Actually, you don’t have to guess at the book’s genuine inspiration, which Goolrick discusses in an afterword, and in a recent Publishers Weekly interview:
I am largely uncomfortable with contemporary fiction. And I wanted to write a novel that had a great story and I started to think of it with the final scene of the novel—the scene in which the garden comes to life. It seemed to me a metaphor for redemption, so I needed a bleak landscape in which that scene would be miraculous. I thought of Wisconsin, which I used to visit quite often on business when I was in advertising, and then I’ve always held Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip very dear to my heart. I think it’s a brilliant book. And so I leafed around that book for probably the 500th time and decided to set it there. His book is set in 1896; I wanted it to be a little later, so there would be electricity and automobiles—a little more modern life.
If you grew up a horror fan—or, in my case, were friends with one growing up—you probably know about Wisconsin Death Trip, which had the sure-fire ability to creep you out without dealing in blood and guts. Words were enough. Lesy’s approach was to set longer stories about the brutality of Wisconsin life against Twitter-brief items from newspapers like this: “The 60 year old wife of a farmer in Jackson, Washington County, killed herself by cutting her throat with a sheep shears.” Add in black-and-white photographs of babies in coffins or headshots of people you knew later became murderers, and voila—nightmares for weeks.
If you care to revisit all this online, the Google Books version of Wisconsin Death Trip includes the words but not the photos; the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Web site has the photos but not the words.