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By Joyce Carol Oates

Original Publisher: Vanguard Press
Current Publisher: Modern Library (Random House, Inc.)

Harold Augenbraum writes:

Joyce Carol Oates loves crime, and if not actual law-breaking, then iniquity. Like this, thought by the central character of the beginning of the book: “He seemed to her prematurely wise, this boy small in his bones and small in the handsome, cocky slant of his eyes, and he put her in mind—she didn’t know why—of the feature paper heroes of only the other day, Baby Face Nelson and Dillinger, who were dead now but still very important.” I love it: “important.” And then this sad boy ends up shot by her brother while she is asleep next to him and Loretta is coerced into sex in the next room by a menacing cop with the dead kid still lying in her bed, and one thing leads to another and the next thing you know there is an issue from either the sex with the dead boy (before he was killed) or maybe the cop and then what passes for family life. She and the cop move in with his parents. He is suspended and takes a job driving a truck, but home life is impossible for her, until she can’t take it any more and they leave, with her parting words to her father-in-law, “’Shit on you, you old bastard!” Loretta cried out happily. “So, kids, that’s that with them...’” And take a look at the first lines of these successive paragraphs, after they move to Detroit: “Loretta was not always drunk.” “But she was pleased with herself.” “When their father came home there was not always trouble.” And “Sometimes there was trouble when his father came home drunk.” More of the American family, à la Joyce Carol Oates.

It’s bleak, all bleak, even the hope seems bleak, and really does remind me a bit of The Adventures of Augie March, set in a major Midwestern city, three siblings, the crashing-together of economic plates. Whoring, abuse, arrests, madness, infatuation with money and the rich, being “taken up” by shady gents, the Detroit riots of 1967 (compare her take to Jeffrey Eugenides’ in Middlesex), elements of American epic grandeur notarized by studies of character. Oates explores a particular kind of individual life—unexplained actions, gothic violence, the improbability of meaning—as though the specific can extrapolate to the general...as a consistent menace...set against the backdrop of a late twentieth century America that provides few, if any, markers.

What’s so interesting about Oates’ approach is that she doesn’t lighten the reader’s load, as Bellow did in Augie March, by employing prodigal language. Instead, she focuses on story, with a style that cajoles the reader by regularly switching viewpoints within single paragraphs. The art is almost invisible. Her style allows the reader to focus on story without the intrusion of unfamiliar language, so artfully done, an exercise in event, an adventure in domestic darkness.

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.



ISBN: 9780345484406

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Leonard Gardner for Fat City
  • Leonard Michaels for Going Places
  • Jean Stafford for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. for Slaughterhouse Five or The Children's Crusade

Fiction Judges that Year: Barbara Epstein, Peter Matthiessen, Harvey Swados

The Year in Literature:

  • The Collected Stories by Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Alexandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • Joyce Carol Oates published her first book, With Shuddering Fall, when she was twenty-six years old and has since published more than fifty novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction.
  • In 2003, Oates said that she thinks she will be remembered for, and would most want a first-time Oates reader to read, them and Blonde, though she added, "I could as easily have chosen a number of titles."

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