There has always been something fervent about Louise Erdrich's fiction. Her characters seem to burn with consciousness and desire in a difficult landscape, a place where isolation and hard weather and poverty clarify the nature of longing. The life she sets loose in her novels is so incendiary that it can only be contained, so it seems, within a shape that is nearly symbolic in purpose. If Erdrich were writing for a different time, her novels would be about saints' lives--narratives in which pain is also joy and death is transfiguration. There is about each of them something exemplary, in the cautioning sense of that word.
"Tales of Burning Love" is Erdrich's sixth novel, not counting "The Crown of Columbus," which was written with her husband, Michael Dorris. Erdrich has an extraordinary ability to grant her characters parole--allowing them to move from one novel to the next--without ever seeming repetitive or calculating.
"Tales of Burning Love," a comic, expansive book, begins with the same story of doomed courtship that opens "Love Medicine," Erdrich's first novel, except that it is told through a different set of eyes. That story ends with June Kashpaw dying in an Easter snowstorm. In "Love Medicine," June's death haunts everyone. But in "Tales of Burning Love," her death haunts only Jack Mauser, the man who married her under a false name and who watched her flee, after a few hours of marriage, from their motel room into the thickening storm.
Mauser is a Gulliver shipwrecked on a coast of women. He has had--although he isn't sure what tense to use when he thinks about it--five wives: the snowbound June; Eleanor Schlick, a lapsed academic; Candice Pantamounty, an aseptic dentist; Marlis Cook, a saloon singer and blackjack dealer; and Dot Nanapush, an employee at his construction firm and a recurring character in Erdrich's earlier novels.
So many marriages to such vital women is a puzzle to everyone. In "Tales," it happens that four of Jack's five ex-wives end up trapped together in a car all night long during a freak blizzard, returning home from a bar in Argus, N.D. (The car also contains, disguised as a hitchhiker in the rear cargo compartment, Dot's first, and undivorced, husband, Gerry Nanapush, who has escaped from prison.)
To keep themselves awake and thus alive, the Mauser wives try to solve the puzzle of Jack's marriages and to absolve themselves, as it were, of each other's presence. "The real question is this," says Eleanor. ". . . If he was so ultra-normal, so banal, so pathetically male, why did any of us agree to marry him?"
Jack is puzzled, too. Here is how he describes himself to Eleanor when they were arguing about getting married. "I'm just this guy. . . . I'm from North Dakota dirt farmers, Indians, a railroad executive, big-shot and little-shot people." Mauser has all the masculine virtues except the love of dogs, and he has kept a kind of native wildness long beyond the onset of what passes in most men for maturity. He is a maker, good with tools and machines, good with what Eleanor calls his "kind hands."
But what singled him out for each of these women was his patent need. In him, they recognize an absence they can accommodate. When he met June, Jack believed that "by climbing into her body, he would exist." As Marlis, his fourth wife, says, "I had no intention of even going out with Jack, but he was starving for it."
It, of course, is not just sex, though this is a deeply, almost reverently sexual novel. It is completion, absolution, forgetfulness and memory all at once. "Tales of Burning Love," like all of Erdrich's novels, is a book about recovering from the belief that you can stand alone.
Only one person manages a kind of self-sufficiency in this novel, and that is the ferocious, desperate nun, Sister Leopolda, who lives in a convent just outside Argus and is the subject of Eleanor's research. Sister Leopolda's words measure the metaphysical dimensions of Erdrich's erotic world. When Eleanor speaks with Sister Leopolda just before her death, the nun tells her there is "No relief to love, no end, no wave, no fall, only a continual ascension."
When Eleanor finds herself blown at last through the great Argus blizzard, Sister Leopolda returns to her in a vision. "Love is brutalizing," the nun says, "a raw force, frail as blossoms, tough as catgut wire. Lost, found, sprinkled with the wild sweet oils, love changes and is immutable. . . . You want abiding rightness, an assurance of your course. You will not find all that in a man. No, that imaginary conviction is a cross that will break his back."
"Tales of Burning Love" is a more garrulous book than any Erdrich has written in the past, again excepting "The Crown of Columbus." It occupies a different space, so to speak, within the same landscape as her other novels. And it hinges upon a different kind of necessity--not the self-enclosed fate one feels on the reservation but a kind of open, almost forgiving sense of possibility, which carries its own kind of compromises, the ones associated with the boom economy that is engulfing the town of Argus: sloppiness, haste, sterility, blandness.
Though Erdrich again conjures with the past in "Tales of Burning Love," this book marks a shift in her career, a shift that is suggested rather than fulfilled. Argus is familiar to her readers, and so are many of the names here: Kashpaw, Nanapush, Lamartine. But there is new country coming into Erdrich's sight, and this novel is her first welcoming account of it.