Say this for Seattle’s Valerie Trueblood: she knows how to sink a hook in the first sentence of the first story in a collection: “When she was twenty, Francie Madden shot and killed her husband Gary. He had joined the Seattle police force six months before, and she shot him with his service revolver.”
Nothing else in Marry or Burn, Trueblood’s new suite of 12 tales about matrimony and its discontents, is quite so stark or violent. Its characters’ relationships with each other, and with the world generally, seem at once fragile and fated. Marriage is a refuge in an unsteady world, but hardly a certain one. A doctor whose lover has just died takes retreats to his old, now his ex-wife’s, country cabin, where the ex’s current boyfriend shows up with another woman. A teenage boy has an undefined breakdown and an uneasy encounter with his school’s basketball coach—the married father of his mother’s new baby. The parents of a woman whose nuptial clock is ticking fret over three prospects proffered by an immigrant matchmaker. They seem like three versions of Mr. Wrong but all turn out, in their very different ways, to be Mr. Right.
That story, “Suitors,” is the only one that wraps up so neatly and reassuringly. Other drift off dreamily or arrive just short of the sort of the illumination prized in lit classes. The Seattle-based Trueblood, the author of one novel (Seven Loves) and a contributing editor for Poetry magazine, deals in fine shadings of memory, motive, and, it sometimes seems, motivelessness. And she’s not afraid to push short-story conventions to explore them. Her tales are dense and elusive, more novelistic sketches than Carveresque miniatures, switching tenses, viewpoints, even protagonists mid-story. Characters and settings range widely, though they’re grounded in a Northwest suspended somewhere between country and city, frontier and cosmopolis—a world Trueblood knows well. One woman realizes she’s reached “that stage between all the good ones being taken and the return of those same men, divorced, like salmon coming back up the river.”
Trueblood’s similes crackle, working like mini-climaxes. “Your mind can rush you like a tackle” sums up one character’s predicament. And another’s: “Who can be sure what is being felt? Love, like so much helium blown into a balloon.”