June 2013

Cass Daubenspeck

nonfiction

Wedlocked by Jay Ponteri

Women's voices have long figured prominently in the publishing sub-category of marriage memoirs, so for the sake of fairness and balance, it was nice to find one written by a man.

Unlike marriage chronicles written in recent decades, Jay Ponteri's Wedlocked does not pander to a culture more enamored with life after marriage than the reasons why marriage is so hard, and how it can -- if it can -- actually work. But it does share their premise: The choice of whom to marry is an unbelievably big decision. At twenty, twenty-five, men and women are, depending on how they were brought up, pressured to decide for the rest of their life, at a time when they are bereft of reason. They need to be impartial about the object of their love, when love prejudices them in their lover's favor. Unfortunately, such is the cockeyed nature of things that many marrying people get into this predicament. And it usually ends the same way.

But Jay Ponteri thinks there's another way to make sense of things. Not to get divorced, but to talk about exactly what's going on inside a marriage, from inside of it.

Jay is a real married person living in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife share the usual things married people do: a house, two dogs, bank accounts, a son. A life "ballooning with inventory," as he puts it, a life filled with to-dos. He resembles a tired kid being dragged around on constant errands -- this house repair, that dinner date with friends -- a situation he avoids by retreating to his workshop off the house. There, he explores his fantasies about other women in a manuscript.  

He uses the manuscript the way some people use drugs or drink, to dream up alternate worlds in which his life is not his life (or his wife is not his wife, his house is not his house). "My dreams pulled me out of bed," he writes. "Padded the lonely walls up against which life threw me." The barista who serves him lattes at the coffee shop becomes his lover, and together they share a lascivious existence of cigarettes and gravy fries, confessing everything and comforting one another in their romantic, adolescent-seeming sadness. Discovery of this manuscript understandably strains his marriage. Particularly because when his wife reads it, he hasn't yet changed the characters' actual names.

What Ponteri means to do here is less about enumerating the negatives of married life -- so many have done that before -- but more to flesh out the individual, emotional experience of binding yourself to one other individual person for the rest of your life, and the fatalism made worse by that relationship, especially if you already tend on the navel-gazing side. 

More than explain, Ponteri wants to know why. Why does marriage seem so impossible? Why do the people who experience this predicament not open up about it? Does anyone else feel deadened by the mundane familiarities, the family calendars, the not remembering how you fell in love with or ever felt love for your spouse? The confusion of not wanting to be married, but not wanting to leave your marriage? He supposes that they do.

Looking back over the history of books about marriage, of the few written by men, almost none are written from the perspective, and in the voice of, their authors. Tolstoy and Balzac embed their own thoughts in the perspectives of fictional male heroes. "Adolphe" is one such avatar in Balzac's Petty Troubles of Married Life, who heads off the rest of the book's chapters, allowing Balzac to avoid self-identification by writing in the second person. Rather than "I" experienced this, "'You' (like Adolphe) can expect to experience this, as a married man." Updike, too, has the chance to divide his perspectives among ten married pairs in Couples. Tolstoy speaks his own mind through the remarks of everyone from Count Vronsky to Posdnicheff.

Few men up until now have embraced marital candor in a first-person narrative -- to this extent -- with the exception of August Strindberg in The Confession of a Fool. That book gave such an embarrassingly honest record of a first marriage, the author no longer feared death.

Plumbing the depths of his soul, Ponteri leaves nothing out. It's like he's trying to make a case for all married men everywhere, for why they should stop feeling bad, isolated, like failures. He is philosophical about it ("Digging for what I do not know -- like I do not know how two people can sustain a marriage over a lifetime, or how and why we give up erotic love for companionship, or why, just as I've created something, I wish to tear it apart") and unapologetically honest ("I often imagine my wife's death"), as if to ask the reader, "Don't you?"

His insight offers an invaluable perspective on the male identity within a marriage today. Readers empathize, scorn, and reckon with the wholehearted suffering of the married writer who self-medicates with fantasy, as he attempts to free himself from the prison of his own desire. The memoir says "in my gloomy heart alone, I am no help to myself or my wife," and hopes to use avowal, as the Confessionalist poets once did, as a method of transformation.

Wedlocked by Jay Ponteri
Hawthorne Books
ISBN: 978-0983850489
174 pages