A book review by Jack Benham
Relapse: A Love Story
By Robert Hunter
Beaver’s Pond Press
A lot happens. This story is a whirlwind. Take the hint from the protagonist’s name: Rob Wildhide.Rob Wildhide lives on his father-in-law’s farm in rural Pennsylvania. He sells used cars for a man named Paul Stager. He drinks strawberry wine and moonshine with father-in-law Dirk. He drinks beer with his wife, Annie. He drinks “Wizard oil” with Wade Balshi. Rob Wildhide drinks “copious amounts of alcohol.”
His passion, writing. But he doesn’t write. He diagnoses himself with writer’s block, a symptom of cowardice and lethargy. Writers block does not exist. There is writing and there is not writing. Wildhide’s writing method: wait for inspiration, wait for inspiration, and call himself a writer. He is a drunk and not to be pitied.
He recounts the loss of his first wife, Kelsey, and discovery of his second wife, Annie to a counselor, Marie. Maybe, he has a fetish for women with names ending in the long-e sound. His revelations to Marie comprise most of the plot. He struggles to remember and most of what he remembers is manic and compulsive.
Annie is a former raft guide. When the story opens, Annie’s ex, Lee Donegan is visiting. He was a raft guide too. Wildhide doesn’t trust raft guides, which is to say he doesn’t trust Annie. According to Rob, Annie believes that they are destined to be together. Her thoughts aren’t revealed unless she speaks them. This is Rob’s story. His projections are final. He doesn’t profess love, he admits it: “And so, suddenly unaware of all other considerations, I said I loved her too.”
Then, he marries her. This is his reasoning: “I found it imperative as a writer, and a basic human necessity, to share new experiences with others and occasionally sleep with them.”
The honeymoon isn’t. Annie drags Rob to Maine for her raft-guide friends’s lesbian wedding. Rob dreads “the North.” He remembers a bad bender in Albany, New York and swore to himself he wouldn’t go north of Pennsylvania again. Before they leave, Rob gets his coworker Aaron drunk the day of Aaron’s wedding. His excuse, “It was a bachelor party.”
Then to Maine. In the backwoods, the wedding party drinks, shoots guns, and takes drugs.
Rob doesn’t like the wedding. He doesn’t enjoy or relax, that is not his bag.
He revels in disdain. He lives on “the edge.” To Rob, “the edge” is a cosmic lifestyle, an artist’s lifestyle ordained by the Universe or the God he keeps mentioning. Life on the edge involves hangovers and rash decisions like stealing a guy named Guy Manchetti’s limousine at the wedding and taking it for a joy ride. The ride narrows the group to Rob, Annie, and a “Romanian gypsy” named Aishe. They drive south, and Aishe ditches. She leaves him with a new term for destiny, soarta (“fate” in Romanian.) Rob believes that every thing that happens to him is because of soarta. Responsibility be damned.
Rob often mentions having read Annie’s journals and that they revealed something important. But the only important thing Rob shares about them is that they reveal that she slept with other raft guides in the past. Hey, Rob, you had to see that coming. Birds of a feather flock together, especially on the rivers of Maine. He is jealous. Annie must be, too. But we never hear from her. If we knew Annie’s thoughts, she would be probably be jealous of Rob playing footsie with one of the brides in a hot tub or cavorting with Aishe for most of the wedding party. During their escape from Maine, Aishe kisses Rob on the lips. Annie doesn’t see or find out. According to Rob, she kissed him and he didn’t kiss her back … and Bill Clinton did not inhale. Then Rob claims to be immune to adultery. He is jealous and righteous.
Back from Maine, he sits down to write and admits that he had lied about his writing ability all his life and still can’t write. So, he hangs himself. But he leaves a chair nearby in case he wants to save himself. When he steps off one chair, he doesn’t want to die and reaches for the other. Swinging by his neck to the other chair, inspiration for his novel finally hits. Once he’s saved himself, he sits down with the noose still around his neck. He writes his story and the story that is Relapse.
On the same day that Rob tries to kill himself, Annie returns from the doctor and reveals that she has cancer.
During Annie’s surgery, the police arrest Rob in the waiting room for stealing the limousine. In jail, his roommate is Terry the Cannibal. Terry does not eat Rob instead they become ‘fast friends.’ Rob arrives at his hearing without a lawyer, but one swoops in at the last moment and cuts a deal with the judge for probation and house arrest. Also at the last minute: as the bailiff drives Rob back to the farm, the bailiff receives a phone call that acquits Rob of any wrongdoing. He’s a free man.
The story ends with Annie and Rob drinking “a cold one”, planning a trip to Las Vegas where they want to make “wild gypsy love” before Annie has to start chemotherapy. It screams, “We’re not going to let cancer control our life.”
If Rob Wildhide read poetry during his hangovers, he might have come across Theodore Rothke’s poem “In Dark Time” and he might have found a truth there. The speaker of that poem asks, “What’s the madness but nobility of the soul/At odds with circumstance?” For comfort, Rob notes or strokes Annie’s “blonde hair”—which if she is to live, she must lose.
The plot flails. Characters appear to dissappear to reappear again. Is this reality through a depressed alcoholic’s eye or a thin world built by a shallow god.