A Happy Marriage only masquerades as fiction. Enrique, the husband in this beguiling account of love and death, serves as a stand-in for the author, Rafael Yglesias. Both sold their first novel at 16, and then dropped out of high school to write full time. The parents of both were writers, too, and both Enrique and Yglesias have enjoyed some success writing scripts for Hollywood movies. The most salient similarity, however, is their long, complex and deeply satisfying marriage to a beautiful and slightly mysterious woman named Margaret who dies of bladder cancer. In her final days, Margaret can no longer eat normally, but she craves one last hot dog from the famous Second Avenue Deli near their apartment in New York. The intimacy displayed as they cope with the consequences of this culinary adventure offsets the painful blundering of her body, and represents, in a way, the peculiar tensions of marriage itself — the intensity intermingled with monotony, the trust challenged by suspicion, the deep knowledge of another person that somehow highlights the peculiar solitude of being human.
Modern marriage lacks the powerful financial bonds that held husband and wife together in earlier times, and the frenzy of early sexual attraction — the typical prelude to couplehood today — provides an unreliable predictor of long-term compatibility. Thus, contemporary writers tend to cast a jaundiced eye on marriage, viewing it as a disappointing trap, a torture, or perhaps a farce. Yglesias has found a way to convey both the ecstasy and the agony of his 27-year marriage to Margaret Joskow, who died in 2004. He begins the book by recounting the first three weeks after Enrique meets Margaret. He describes his passion for her as "a shock and a vibration in his heart , a palpable break inside the cavity of his chest." He is so bedazzled by this woman that the first time they go to bed together he cannot even perform sexually. The second part of the book focuses on her long and painful decline, which Yglesias renders in unflinching detail. The New York Times review compared the two parts of this book to great rivers, "one moving toward ecstasy and life, the other toward annihilation and disintegration of the flesh and bodily functions." Yglesias himself admits that he could not have written so intimately and honestly about his marriage when his wife was alive, but his account, which he wrote "out of grief," serves as a celebration as well as a heartfelt goodbye — a semi-autobiographical tale that short story writer Ann Beattie describes as "a punch-in-the-stomach book."
Although the description of Margaret's last meal may cause some readers to lose their appetite for hot dogs, at least temporarily, nothing would accompany a discussion of A Happy Marriage better than a facsimile of the famous frankfurter served at New York's Second Avenue Deli. Accompanied with a buffet of garnishes — ketchup, mustard, pickle relish, pickles, sweet and hot peppers, chili, cheese and anything else that might sound appealing — a hot dog can satisfy the taste of anyone. While any good frank will do, BurgerMonger in Tampa serves a hot dog created especially for the restaurant by HeartBrand Beef of Yoakum, Texas, which uses Akaushi Kobe-style beef. (You can order a pack of six for $8.50 plus shipping at heartbrandbeef.com.) "Akaushi beef is high in fat, but it's monounsaturated fat, which is a major health benefit," says Bill Fielding of HeartBrand. "Also, the cattle are raised without hormones or antibiotics."
Serve it with . . .
Beer, the traditional hot dog companion, remains the first choice, but in celebration of the happy marriage, a toast with a quality chilled champagne or sparkling wine might be in order. That may sound like a strange match, but actor Marlene Dietrich supposedly claimed that hot dogs and champagne were her favorite meal. And don't think you can get away with something cheap. The expensive stuff is always better no matter what it's served with, so go all out. Don't forget, you'll be toasting to A Happy Marriage, which certainly deserves the best.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an e-mail to email@example.com. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.