Best known for his jaunty, ruminative nonfiction books on such redoubtable topics as bachelorhood, melancholy, and the male body, Phillip Lopate last produced a full-length work of fiction in 1987—The Rug Merchant. Whence, then, this tart, mischievous set of novellas—Two Marriages—paired some twenty-one years later into one deceptively trim, provocatively entertaining volume? Such is the mystery out of which fiction, like married life, is made—and into which Lopate lustily delves.
In the first and longer work, The Stoic’s Marriage, a well-off forty-eight-year-old Spanish Catholic first-generation Brooklynite named Gordon narrates via diary entries the course of his ideal, then absurdist, then, as deceits and high jinks pile up, surreal marriage to a fetching thirty-six-year-old Filipina, Rita, who is newly arrived in America and served as his dying mother’s favorite health aide. Gordon, an adjunct classics instructor and self-styled practicing Stoic in the manner of his Greek philosopher hero, Epictetus, suffers by his own admission from “uxoriousness” over his bride, whom he describes as “a paragon,” “a jewel” who is “radiant, beautiful, kind . . . skillful, exciting, and many-faceted.” It is the last of these virtues on which Lopate’s twisty tale turns.
Invoking the wisdom of long-deceased male literary figures—Chekhov, Proust, Shakespeare, and their ilk—with whom he seems to connect most intimately despite his apologetic salivating over his flesh-and-blood wife, Gordon, nicknamed Gordo from childhood for being “pudgy,” records each jolting revelation with an equanimity unto tragedy. Beneath Gordon’s somber mien lurks Lopate’s essentially comedic impulse, which fuels both of these serious, tongue-in-cheekily crafted novellas.
In fact, it is this tempo and tone of sophisticated, slow-motion slapstick that save The Stoic’s Marriage from the whiff of paternalism that Gordon’s journal exudes, as when he describes Rita as “Audrey Hepburn with breasts.” Might another reader (or writer) envision her beloved as “Fred Astaire with a penis”? While Gordon does read his former flame and fellow academic Edith’s feminist syllabus—Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir, Elizabeth Cady Stanton—much of his emotional life seems grafted onto his narrow intellectual appetite, which is keyed to what he himself calls “masculine privilege,” so that he constantly rationalizes away, if not his very existence, then nearly all his life experiences that do not conform to his beloved Stoic’s handbook.
Memorably, wincingly, the hapless, smarty-pants pedagogue utters such perfectly pompous, silly statements as “My mind had wandered off in the middle of listening attentively.” This happens while Rita is telling him about her community of Filipino friends in New Jersey, with whom she is becoming increasingly involved, a development that sets in motion all the domestic havoc that follows, shaking Gordon’s arrogant and unrealistic Stoic stance to its foundation. Or as Gordon’s friend Gabe, an ex–logical positivist and budding Buddhist, as well as the chair of the philosophy department at the Free School, where Gordon teaches, argues: “With Stoicism, I mean. It doesn’t work. It’s humanly speaking impossible.”
The shorter novella, Eleanor, or the Second Marriage, also takes place in brownstone Brooklyn. There, on a quiet street “with its flower boxes, gingko trees, and old-fashioned lampposts from the gaslight era,” live Frank and Eleanor, he a forty-something sound engineer with two sons from his first marriage (who live with their mother) and a fondness for turtleneck sweaters and pot, she a book publicist with a tamed wild streak (she once owned a motorcycle, which she crashed) who possesses a “crisp, cheerful, matter of fact voice” and a teenage daughter (away at riding camp). The marriage is still new, and they are determined “not to repeat the mistakes of the last one[s].”
Via a deft third-person narration, the novella unfolds over a summer weekend during which Eleanor and Frank organize a dinner party for a visiting actor friend. Quickly and stealthily scratching beneath the surface of their Good Life—“wine by the case, and beef by the side”—Lopate exposes Eleanor two mornings before the party, precoccupied with rubbing a stain out of her white bathrobe. She’s next to the bed, where Frank lays oblivious, already lost in problem-solving dinner-party logistics.
This small fissure in their marital union deepens and spreads as Frank’s pothead son Theo and his stoned, nature-girl fiancée, Heidi, arrive. Theo breaks out the weed he’s brought to sell his dad, and their instant haggling over price highlights—hilariously, sadly—what seems to be the focal point of their father-son bond. By night’s end, with the guests sated and scattered into the shadows beneath the antique lamps of Cobble Hill, Eleanor and Frank’s marriage has reached a breaking point. Secrets and disappointments have been revealed, deceptions fessed up to, doubts expressed, the seamless bedrock of their union reduced to a gaping gravel pit.
Kudos to Lopate for producing this painful yet playful duo of cautionary tales about the wily conundrum that is marriage and for his risky forays into such perennially hot-button topics as immigration, gender, family, sexuality, and race. Two Marriages is a class act.
Lisa Shea is a writer living in Brooklyn.