Enrique Sabas has sort of drifted through life, but now his wife is dying of cancer and he must figure out how to cope.
The sorrow facing the Manhattan couple at the center of this brave novel is instantly compelling. Wife Margaret has chosen to let cancer finally kill her, and she turns to husband Enrique for help managing the details of a two-week goodbye.
At turns both clueless and pompous, Enrique is hardly prepared for the job. He's a novelist, for Pete's sake, and has ego-tripped through courtship, kids, infidelity and therapy pretty much like a big, fat baby. But as with all good characters, he's so fully realized, so present on the page, that it's hard not to feel for him, and wish upon him the grace he needs.
That he shares much biography with his creator, Rafael Yglesias, who also lost a Margaret to cancer, is intriguing. But the real question is, can Yglesias use this autobiography to plumb Enrique's psychological depths and return something relevant?
Done and done. In prose that flexes with unflinching confidence, Yglesias parts the hospital curtain to show not just death's indignities -- Margaret's "scouring pad" of hair, or the stomach tube politely hidden inside a L'Occitane bag -- but also its tender comedy, small reprieves and surreal turns of fortune.
Not to mention its heartbreak. When Enrique feels his world melting away, for instance, he knows that "soon, very soon, only a puddle of his heart would remain." And then there's the spot-on filleting of the male psyche: "He had been walking blithely in the world all these years, believing that he was an independent creature who just happened to be married to Margaret." Smacking face to face with such a "d'oh" moment, mere hours from your wife's death, is pretty tragic stuff.
Unfortunately, these insights are too often obscured by back story -- on the couple's boys, say, or Enrique's bad taste in birthday gifts -- that feels cramped and anemic. And every few pages the writing goes cringe-y, as when Margaret's middle-aged behind is compared to "pillows, not firm fruit." Attempts at witty metaphor take an equal dive: Comparing Enrique's first encounter with Margaret to ordering takeout, Yglesias writes, "He had selected her from his friend's menu, but he hadn't expected noodles this spicy."
Margaret is also disappointing -- sympathetic, yes, but not much more than Enrique's winsome conjugal obsession or cancer's courageous victim. Even her supposed marital bullying remains more rumor than fact. It's not that we don't get to hear her side; it's that we don't feel it.
Still, "A Happy Marriage" paints a welcome portrait of American masculinity in the crucible. Welcome because it defies Hemingway's macho proving grounds to throw Enrique a real tough-guy test: how to give yourself to another, with grace and an open heart, even as death listens at the door.
Scott Muskin of Minneapolis is the author of "The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama's Boy and Scholar."