Over the past few years, I’ve been slowly reading Louise Erdrich’s novels, beginning with the first and going chronologically. Most of her books take place in and around the same town, Argus, North Dakota, and its nearby reservation. Her characters are members of the Ojibwe tribe and the primarily German-American people who inhabit the same place. Her characters recur, and this can be confusing if too much time has elapsed between books. Who is Lyman Lamartine again? Is June Morrissey the same person as the June Kashpaw who died in Love Medicine? Is Dot Nanapush related to the Nanapush in Tracks? (Answers: I don’t know, yes, and sort of.)
Tales of Burning Love is the story of Jack Mauser and his five ex-wives. Jack is a charming but constitutionally reckless guy, a construction contractor with a deep love of alcohol and women. He’s addicted to commitment: no matter how unsuitable the relationship, he drags it to the altar, with life-changing consequences for him and for the women in his life. The book opens in 1981, when Jack has drunk himself nearly into oblivion because of a terrible toothache. Next to him at the bar is June. The attending clergyman is on the next bar stool, and the wedding rings are pop-tops from beer cans. Later that night, he allows June (whose name he didn’t quite catch) to walk out into a blizzard. She is found frozen to death, and the guilt of that relationship haunts Jack in the rest of the book.
By middle age, he’s accumulated five divorces and a baby son. He can’t dodge the rest of his life crashing in on him, either: he owes massive money to the bank for the unsellable division he’s just built, he’s cheated and run out on so many partners and businesses that he can’t get anyone to work with him; his charm is signally failing to impress his loan officer. He allows his house to catch fire (another brilliant idea fueled by alcohol).
In the middle section of the book, four of his ex-wives are trapped together after Jack’s funeral, in a second furious blizzard, in Jack’s red Explorer. They take the enforced time to mourn the man they’ve just put to rest. Once they have worked past some of their initial hostility and jealousy toward each other, they begin to talk about Jack, each of them offering her tale of how they met and fell in love, and meditating on what captured her about this man. These women each have very different temperaments and histories. This middle section makes real comic sparks, as the stories fit together: one woman reeled after breaking up with Jack, miring herself in professional scandal and retreating to a convent to study a saint-to-be. Two more of the wives fell in love with each other and are raising Jack’s son. The fourth is Dot, an accountant, stolid and no-nonsense (and a bigamist.) All the threads are carefully gathered together.
I enjoyed this book, but there were things about it I had trouble with. For one thing, you can tell just from my description that despite the large cast of female characters, this book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Jack is the driving force of the novel, and when he’s center stage, it feels like he belongs there. But when the women are talking about him, he doesn’t seem deserving of this amount of attention — just another irresponsible guy. I wanted to hear more about the women themselves, their own stories. Also, despite the significant length of the novel (450 pages), there are ideas that never get resolved. One character after another gets her safe landing — Erdrich is still using her favorite device of multiple narrators and perspectives — but I still had questions. Her prose is as beautiful as ever, but this wasn’t my favorite installment so far. Still, I’m looking forward to reading The Antelope Wife.