John Nichols pulls out all the stops in his latest comic novel. Indications of his style in humor come from a cursory glance at the book. The blurbs on the back cover are from such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Schopenhauer. The subtitle is marked for transposition; “martial” becomes marital. As the reader discovers, each word is appropriate. Finally, the release date for CONJUGAL BLISS is Valentine’s Day.
As the story begins, Roger and Zelda are celebrating their six-month wedding anniversary with several friends. The party ends with a bout of property destruction. Sections from that point until near the book’s end show how Roger and Zelda arrived at the point of violence. The book has no chapter divisions; it is a series of episodes in approximate chronological order, as Roger remembers them.
Nichols cleverly overplays each of the characters, giving each enough normal characteristics to be believable but drawing particular features to extremes. Roger and Zelda, like many newlyweds, are deep in lust with each other. Roger’s recollections of each of their pasts, however, reveals that both were promiscuous to the point of comedy. Much of the marital friction comes from the fact that Roger remains on good terms with many of his former lovers, including his ex-wife. His children are slovenly; Zelda’s are perfect. Zelda’s friend Weezie speaks primarily through Adrian, a hand puppet. When Zelda and Roger attempt marital counseling, they go to Weezie’s therapist, who is pleased when they begin a screaming fight during the first few minutes of the first session.
Each of the short episodes has moments of humor. Nichols shows tremendous skill in developing characters while constantly introducing comic plot elements, stringing a simple plot device of a marital fight into an entire hilarious novel. He recognizes the limits of his reach as well, closing the book with the line, “Hey, dude! You wanna buy a bridge?” That line is tacked onto an epilogue that is difficult to believe given the preceding narrative; the entire novel, in hindsight, is questionable, but Nichols makes every word believable during the reading.