Nolo Contendere

Do with me what you will

by Joyce Carol Oates
Vanguard Press, 561 pp., $7.95

I think, or I like to think, that Do with me what you will is a novel which could not be written fifty years from now. This is not yet an aesthetic judgment, but a personal preference. I don’t like to read about browbeaten women or even about their breaking free. I don’t intend, though, any injustice to Joyce Carol Oates. She is far from a fool; on the contrary, she is a person all too aware of male abuse. Her sympathy is with her main character, Elena Howe, who endures this abuse. But this endurance is depressing at the start and later, when it is altered to action, the action is enforced by the date of composition. The whole sequence makes me, at any rate, want to be born much later, say in 2023.

Elena Howe moves only a little in the novel. After a long mental illness, her wish to die becomes a wish to live, and on that basis she has the courage to replace her bossy husband with her bossy lover. She can at the end leave her husband and persuade her lover to join her. Three small cheers.

All these personal writhings are embedded in a legal context. Both the husband, Marvin Howe, and the lover, Jack Morrissey, are lawyers. The title of the novel, Do with me what you will, is, in fact, Marvin Howe’s casual translation of the legal term nolo contendere. Howe’s choice of nolo contendere is for his own financial defense. Aside from himself, Howe’s favorite clients are admitted murderers. One of his early and typical cases, for which the novel dips back in time, was the defense of Jack Morrissey’s father, Joseph Morrissey, who shot a man he blamed for the death of Ronnie Morrissey, his defective son. Thanks to Howe, Joseph Morrissey remains free, but he also remains afraid to leave his own back yard. And Jack Morrissey hates Howe for his exploitation of the Morrissey family: Howe’s use of his client’s intimate problems and, after the trial, his total indifference to them.

Jack Morrissey’s work is somewhat more admirable. He shares with Marvin Howe the principle of legality, but Morrissey’s legal work is self-sacrificing rather than self-congratulatory. Still, he prefers like Howe cases of admitted guilt. The innocent—his wife Rachel, for example, and his client Mered Dawe, a commune philosopher arrested on a drug charge—confuse and irritate him. They suffer from the law, but they raise issues with which the law cannot deal.

It is not that the novel condones lawlessness or revolution simply because of legal limitations, but it supports the innocent and idealistic. Mered Dawe speaks above and beyond Jack Morrissey. Still, though Jack Morrissey cannot understand or admire Mered Dawe, he does his best for him. And his defense of Dawe fails, almost immediately after Howe’s successful defense of an admitted murderer. The book acknowledges Detroit’s brutality: not just the murders …

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