Dear Book Lady,
Are there any good stories where the husband's a jerk?
Before I reply -- before I even thank you for asking a question that I hope will prove beyond any reasonable doubt that no, in fact, I don't make up the letters in this column -- I need to express how badly I want to know what on earth brought this on. Seriously. Do you have a bet with someone? Is a member of your book group going through a bad marital patch and this is your weird idea of trying to help? Are you single and researching jerk husbands to make sure you'll know one when you see him? Was it your turn to pick the topic this month and all the good ones had already been taken?
All right. While I'm waiting for you to get back to me on all this, and I devoutly hope you do, you can paw through what I came up with and see if any of it fits the bill.
Oddly enough, I did not find any short-story anthologies specifically devoted to the category in question. Maybe the bookstore was just temporarily out of Jerks and the Women Who Marry Them (editor: Andrea Dworkin), but at any rate, I had to turn to what I already had on my shelves.
You didn't say if you wanted classic works or contemporary, so I found you some of both. And I didn't get paid any extra or anything.
For old stuff, let me start with the title that first sprang to mind as soon as I read your request and stopped laughing incredulously. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper" is perhaps a stretch. I'm not sure if the husband should technically be defined as a jerk. He's just insensitive, and patriarchal, and represents all that was wrong with the male-dominated society of Gilman's time. Okay, I guess he is a jerk. And it's a really good story. Please read it, even if your group doesn't. And while you're at it, the Oxford collection of Gilman's stories has a couple of other jerk husband pieces in it. "Deserted" is fun, and "Turned" is excellent.
If you want to have your heart broken in several weeping pieces that will bleed all over the floor and ruin your new carpeting, get a copy of Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening that includes a selection of her short stories. Many editions do. Before you pay for it, make sure it includes "Desiree's Baby." Then prepare for a night of ferocious discussion, since this story grapples with racism as well as jerk husbands. Why don't you read The Awakening while you're at it? It's short, it's wonderful, and while the husband isn't a total jerk, he's problematic, and his wife's life is a fascinating study.
I wasn't sure how long you were willing to go when it came to stories. Do novellas count? Edith Wharton wrote one called "Sanctuary." It's a strange piece in that the whole reason the woman marries the guy is because he's a jerk. And she's not a masochist or anything. It's very odd. Anyway, it's about a hundred pages long. "Madame de Treymes" is shorter and better and the husband is definitely a jerk, but you never see him in action. You might find that disappointing. I don't know how gritty you want this, but I thought I've give you some options.
Speaking of old novellas, Leo Tolstoy wrote one called "The Kreutzer Sonata" that you might read if you're ever feeling too much inclined in the direction that life is worth living. Evil murderous jerk of a husband. The scary part is that I don't know if Tolstoy knew that.
For a lighter evening's read and talk, Oscar Wilde's "The Canterville Ghost" is wonderful and witty. The title character is technically a jerk husband. I guess that's kind of an understatement, since he kills his wife apparently because he doesn't approve of how she prepared the deer he shot. But it's not as if you see it happen. And he did it some three or four hundred years ago, so she'd be dead by now anyway, right? Okay, I'm reaching. But it's still a great story.
For just plain irredeemable jerk husbands who at least get punished, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" is great fun, in a terrifying don't-read-this-at-night kind of way. If you like your horror a shade more inscrutable, pick up Ambrose Bierce's short story collection The Moonlit Road. You can read the title story, "The Secret of Macarger's Gulch," and "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot" and have all the jerk husbands you could ever want, plus a nice huge electric bill from keeping the lights on all night every night for the rest of your life.
Virginia Woolf didn't write many short stories, but I think her "Lappin and Lapinova" qualifies as jerk-husband material. It's a very strange little work, and your group may spend the whole evening arguing about what the hell it actually means -- but hey, you want a jerk husband, I give you a jerk husband.
Moving a little farther into the previous century, Dorothy Parker is always a joy to read except when her husband-characters are such big jerks that you can hardly stand it, which is the case in her "Mr. Durant." The title character may not be the most loathsome creature ever to ooze slime all over a page, but he's got to at least be on the top ten list. "Glory in the Daytime" has icky characters all over the place. "Cousin Larry" is so evil that at least you can laugh, and I think I want to put "Horsie" on the jerk-husband list even though the guy is perfectly nice, even worshipful, to his wife. That's kind of the problem with him. Oh, just read it already and you'll see what I mean.
You have to read some Daphne du Maurier. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is. "The Blue Lenses" is one of the best short stories ever ever, and yes the husband is a jerk so you should be very happy. Ditto "The Apple Tree." "The Alibi" is so creepy-scary I can hardly make myself read it, but jerk-husband? You betcha.
John Collier isn't as well-known now as he was fifty years ago; certainly he isn't as well-known as he ought to be. Pick up a copy of his short-story collection Fancies and Goodnights, smile at it because it's one of the first books my now-husband-then-boyfriend lent to me when we were dating, and turn to the following pieces in no particular order: "Three Bears Cottage," "Season of Mists," "Without Benefit of Galsworthy," "Back for Christmas," "Midnight Blue," and "In the Cards." Some of them are funny, all are witty, a few are spooky. Think of a cross between Wilde and Saki. And please don't ask me who Saki is. Go to the library and look him up, already. Oh, okay -- he's a short story writer from the early twentieth-century and I'm sure a lot of his characters are husbands and jerks, but I'm too tired to check so do me a favor and forget I said anything.
More firmly into the twentieth century, we have of course my beloved Shirley Jackson, who will always have just the thing for whatever your reading needs are. In the jerk-husband department, you can find "Got a Letter From Jimmy" in her brilliant collection The Lottery, which if you do not currently own you must run out and buy right now if you expect me to ever speak to you again. Her posthumous collection Just an Ordinary Day is also insanely good, and there are a lot more jerk-husbands in it. You'll find them in "Jack the Ripper," "The Good Wife" (so quietly creepy), and the two versions of "The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith." This last title is especially worth exploring. Jackson apparently couldn't decide which telling she preferred and never sought to publish either. They're both so wonderful that you can sympathize with her struggle. Both of them feature the same husband, who I'll go ahead right now and tell you is a serial murderer. In one version of the story, his latest (and soon to be late) wife is unaware of his true nature, and goes into denial when a neighbor tries to warn her; in the other, the current Mrs. Smith understands her husband completely, and it becomes clear that she did even before she married him. Learning why she married him anyway is good, deep, disturbing stuff. I say go for it.
If a jerk husband is what you want, obviously Fay Weldon is going to be able to help you. I don't just mean that she could offer up her own ex, although I'm sure she'd be happy to do just that, especially if you happen to be a particularly deranged deity with a taste for human sacrifice. But her fiction is just full of jerks. Check out her short-story collection Polaris for "Delights of France or Horrors of the Road," "In the Great War," and especially "Birthday!" Moon Over Minneapolis has one of my favorites, "A Visit from Johannesburg or Mr. Shaving's Wives." The rest of the collection is pretty good, too, though not as jerk-husband intensive as you might like.
Just to give a slightly different angle to the whole jerk-husband theme, you might want to check out Angela Carter's short story collection The Bloody Chamber and read the title story. Then read the rest of the book, because each story is a modern retelling of various fairy tales and it just doesn't get any better than that. "The Bloody Chamber" is a spin on the Bluebeard story. The whole slender collection is very sexy and strange, elegant and eerie.
I received Steven Millhauser's collection The King in the Tree for Christmas, and the first piece in it, "Revenge," was the second thing to leap into my mind when I read your letter. I don't read much contemporary fiction, but this was too good to miss.
But if you really want to go to jerk-husband country, and I guess you do, just grab a collection of Raymond Carver's work. Without really trying too hard, I found five qualifying stories in his collection Where I'm Calling From. "So Much Water So Close to Home" is scary as well as in the running for best story title ever; "Gazebo" and "They're Not Your Husband" more like just plain creepy; "A Serious Talk" is, according to an old English teacher of mine, hilarious stuff (though I admit I still don't quite see it); and "Cathedral" really is hilarious stuff no matter who you are. I almost don't want to mention that last story, because, okay, the husband's a jerk, but not really a bad guy; plus he's really funny, provided of course you're not married to him; plus the writer seems to understand that the guy's a jerk, but is just having a good time with the story and wants you to do the same. As do I. Have fun and let me know how it goes.
All my best,
The Book Lady
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