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book review

‘His Wife Leaves Him’ by Stephen Dixon

alison seifer spacek for the boston Globe

Though Stephen Dixon has written more than 500 short stories and published 16 novels, twice been a finalist for the National Book Award, won numerous fellowships, and taught for decades at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, he remains a hidden treasure whose credentials are regularly recited at the beginning of interviews and articles as if to establish that he is worth reading about, let alone reading.

But the real proof of Dixon’s readworthiness is his writing, which is superb.

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His latest novel, “His Wife Leaves Him” begins with a knock on the door of a creative writing classroom. Martin Samuels, a fiction writer and professor, is pulled away from class because his wife, Gwen, has had a stroke. The ensuing 39-page paragraph (more about that in a moment) tells the story of Gwen’s initial recovery, her decline after a second stroke, Martin’s tender care and bouts of frustrated rage, including an outburst in which she overhears him shouting, “I wish you’d die, already, die, already, and leave me in peace,” her third stroke that very night and death a day later, Martin’s guilt over her death, and a memorial service organized by his daughters against his wishes, though afterward he characteristically admits, “Incidentally, this was very nice — cathartic in a way — and I’m glad you had it”

The rest of the book takes place the night after the memorial service, but covers the entire history of Martin and Gwen’s marriage, as Martin lies in bed with his memories.

“His Wife Leaves Him” has neither a MacGuffin nor a Rosebud, no dramatic plot arc, nor resolution. Rather, an aging writer dreams about, remembers, tries to remember, reimagines, and reflects upon the events of his marriage.

He begins at the end, then goes back to the very beginning: It takes 150 pages — six paragraphs — to get from Martin and Gwen’s first encounter at a party to their first date two weeks later, via the history of Martin’s previous relationships, his attempts to understand why it took him so long to call her, his daily life in New York, the Solzhenitsyn books he was reading at the time, accounts of subsequent conversations and events in the relationship, and more.

The narrative continues in similar nonlinear fashion, as shorter paragraphs recount discrete events, moving back and forth in time. In no particular order, Martin and Gwen break up, marry, have two daughters, spend summers in Maine, create homes and acquire household items, listen to classical music, drive, read, write, drink, fight, have sex, and pee (there has never been a novel with so much peeing).

That he has been compared to James Joyce is no surprise: Language is his passion and the Upper West Side his Dublin.

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Meanwhile, in his bed that night, Martin dreams, awakens, falls asleep again, gets up to pee, realizes he’s repeating himself, admits when he’s lying, struggles to remember names and the occasional word, and constructs his epic tale.

In short — or at length — as the novel progresses, its capacious representation of experience and thought accretes into a remarkable portrait of a man, woman, and marriage.

Short or lengthy, Dixon’s paragraphs encapsulate singular but interconnected episodes that reference other episodes, alternative possibilities, different recollections, not to mention actual events in the lives of Dixon and his own wife, Anne Frydman — who was, like Gwen, a wheelchair-bound translator, although Dixon began this novel several years before Frydman died in 2009 of multiple sclerosis.

Martin and Gwen, initially defined by their limitations, as struggling caretaker and invalid wife, gradually emerge as fully-realized characters in a strikingly happy — and typically imperfect — marriage.

This is Dixon’s longstanding modus operandi: fiction meticulously constructed to mirror the rambling complexities of real life, which in so doing reveals beauty and pain as only art can.

That he has been compared to James Joyce is no surprise: Language is his passion and the Upper West Side his Dublin.

But where Joyce becomes abstruse, Dixon remains fully grounded in the erratic yet ultimately cohesive rhythms of ordinary speech and daily life. Or, as Martin puts it, in a description of his first review in Newsweek, which could easily apply to Dixon: “An appealing and clearly written mix . . . of eros, thanatos, deep feeling and snippets of humor.”

There are certainly places where Dixon’s method palls, like an almost 50-page paragraph of mildly interesting but eventually monotonous dreams. Some might find his purposefully abrupt transitions less than “clearly written.”

But overall, whether Martin is circling around a forgotten detail or forthrightly proclaiming that “There wasn’t anything he didn’t like about her,” “His Wife Leaves Him” is a gem. Here’s hoping it finally brings Dixon the wider readership he deserves.

Rebecca Steinitz, a writer and editor who lives in Arlington, can be reached at rsteinitz@gmail.com.
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