King of the World by Merrill Joan Gerber (Pushcart Press: $18.95; 279 pages.)
Much is made of the fact that men perceive women as objects, but the opposite truth is that women often perceive men as objects as well, to everyone's mutual detriment. "King of the World" springs from the consequences of an initial misperception that holds all of the characters of this story in ongoing bondage. This is the tale of Ginny and Michael, their romance, their marriage, their tragedy.
Ginny thinks of herself as unlovely. She has a crooked back--not bad enough to be operated on, but bad enough to make her feel sad, unattractive. She falls in love with a man named Michael who looks gorgeous. His body is terrific, his eyes shine. He makes love like an angel (or devil) and he crowns Ginny "Queen of the World"--with a broken starfish, at twilight, on a Mexico beach.
Michael is impetuous, moody. Not to put too fine a point on it, he's crazy, certifiably nuts. Ginny knows this from the very beginning of their relationship because in Chapter 1, Michael performs an unspeakable act, a hideous deed. So, the point is made, Ginny knows, at some level, what she's getting into when she takes up with this self-styled king of the world. And no, this is not a Hedda Nussbaum wife-beating expose, but something far more subtle. Michael may be crazy, but he does love his wife. Ginny may know he's crazy, but she has to weigh that in the balance of a certain kind of glamour, the wild imagination she herself will never have, and incredible nights of lovemaking that are the only moments of magic in her otherwise gray and dreary life.
Flash forward 15 years. Ginny and Michael are married. Ginny wants to adopt a baby. Her back treatments have made her sterile and she's clued in enough to reality by now to reflect that "maybe she was lucky her ovaries were dead as dry fruit pits, then she would never have to worry about her bone problems being passed on to a baby, or about Michael's spinning eyeballs turning up one day in her baby's face." In spite of the fact that Michael can't hold a job, they do manage to adopt Adam, a sweet little boy, and Michael's crazy mother comes to live with them.
For the first significant time in 15 years, Ginny is able to have flashes of not-love toward her husband. With her baby to love she can look at the ever-crazier King of the World and think, "Who needs you?" But . . . stop and think about the story so far. This is not about just one couple in an untenable situation.
This novel addresses itself to the whole question of so-called battered wives and to their husbands. It's easy; it's a reflex action to say, or think, about battered wives: Why don't they just leave ? In just that same way the flat-footed rhetorical question about the homeless comes up: Why don't they just get a job? But for every battered wife, there was once a romance and a marriage and a lot of moments filled with passion and pity and compassion and shared history. People tend to get married because they love each other and that love--like uranium--has a long half-life. It doesn't just go away. Even when the brain decides on a rational course of action, it sometimes takes the body and the soul a while to catch up.
And so, in this novel, Michael becomes crazier and crazier. Very unwillingly, Ginny decides to seek help, and learns a way to make a decent living. Even then, and even when her husband commits another unspeakable act, she finds it almost impossible to leave. But this is not about a monster pursuing a victim.
What makes "King of the World" so engrossing is that a good many of the chapters are told from Michael's point of view. All Michael wants is to succeed amazingly, so that his wife, his mother, his child, the rest of the world, will give him the recognition and adulation that he considers to be his just due. It's not fair, Michael thinks. He looks like a king, he acts like a king, he should be treated like a king. The world, it turns out, is crueler to him than to his long-suffering wife. This novel attempts to get below the journalistic surface of a very bad social problem, and succeeds, memorably.