The faithless, opportunistic, honey-voiced midwestern preacher has long been a stock literary figure, an all-American sociopath (huckster cousin to the snake-oil salesman and crooked real-estate man) made immortal in works from Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry to The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum. Ken Kimble, in Jennifer Haigh’s first novel, Mrs. Kimble, is such a man. He’s the emptiness at the center of Haigh’s book, a tabula rasa on whom much is projected by the three women he marries. It’s a promising premise, a fresh retelling of the old story of male predation and female vulnerability and victimhood from the women’s point of view.
Monosyllabic, workaholic, a profound misogynist who “freezes up” when one of his wives “talked about the intimate functions of her body,” Kimble, as a mate, leaves much to be desired. Haigh adds a full complement of quasi-reptilian traits—crude eating habits and a total lack of nerves, let alone conscience. But Kimble knows how to close the deal. He’s a mechanical mouther of sweet nothings, the kind of things lonely, needy women typically—or stereotypically—want to hear: “I chose you because you’re the only one who could sing the part.” “You’re a beautiful girl.” “I never met a girl like you.” And in Haigh’s story, they fall for it.
Kimble’s career as a serial seducer begins in the early sixties when he approaches Birdie after choir practice at Hambley Bible College, when she is 18 and he is just over 30. He leaves her eight years later—with two children—after he takes up with another 18-year-old at the Bible school. Birdie, overmatched by life, takes to her bed, dodging social workers while sending the children to the store to buy her wine. In swift, joyless intercourse with the local stud-muffin mechanic (how did you guess that Haigh named him Buck?) in a parked car, Birdie loses her mother’s pearl necklace and almost all that remains of her self-respect.
Joan, Kimble’s second wife, is Jewish, highly educated (she graduated No. 2 in her class at Radcliffe), and worldly. Her career as a New York Times reporter has been derailed by breast cancer and a mastectomy. But it’s hard to imagine such a woman falling for a man with such a simple shtick. Down on his luck and working as a gardener, he meets Joan when he’s called in to deal with an aphid problem at the home where she’s convalescing. Blonde and straight-nosed, totally guilt-free, he nonetheless claims Jewish ancestry—and manages to fool Joan and her real-estate-macher uncle, who takes him into his business, where he swiftly builds a fortune. “She blamed the midwest,” writes Haigh, “for Ken’s spartan work ethic, his reluctance to talk about his feelings, all the parts of her husband she doesn’t understand.”
On one level, Kimble’s blankness, and his wives’ cluelessness, are built into the book’s premise. But Haigh, who studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, makes Mrs. Kimble emptier than it has to be, an orderly, slightly antiseptic laboratory for experimenting with what women want and need from men. The many short chapters are often punctuated with pregnant little epigrams that underline the plot. “You don’t know the first thing about him, do you?” asks Joan’s friend Ben. “Who’s going to want me now?” she wonders.
Kimble reaches a new level of monstrosity when he takes off his latest wedding ring and travels back to try to sweet-talk Birdie out of their children. He succeeds, temporarily, but in doing so, he meets his match in his 10-year-old son, Charlie, who quickly suspects his father’s ruse and flees through a driving rain storm with his 6-year-old sister, Jody (shades of Night of the Hunter), back to their alcoholic mother.
As Kimble’s reptilian vigor flags, so, too, does Mrs. Kimble. Kimble marries Dinah, a beautiful young woman with a birthmark that covers half her face, as a kind of plastic-surgery fixer-upper. Her laser treatment indeed allows the world to see her true colors—after which she sees Kimble’s true colors as well. The arch-villain is reduced to a lonely old man with a closetful of nice suits and a pharmacy of heart pills but with no one who loves him—even Charlie, primed for revenge, finds little sport in poking at him. For all its realist gloss, the book is like a fairy tale—monster gone, the townspeople rejoice. Even Birdie gets a new lease on life. Ordinarily, things don’t happen this way.