Broke Heart Blues
by Joyce Carol Oates
Dutton, 369 pp., $24.95
Our hungry manufacture and easy bestowal of fame (with its twin illusions of accessibility and inaccessibility) is a kind of communion: it brings the gods close and makes them edible. In the words of my four-year-old son, “Stars are farther than outer space. They are farther than South America. They are in Russia”—a remark that, despite the decrescendo and uncertainty of its geography, rather effectively expresses the idea that glamour and mystery are so elusive, quick, arbitrary, and surprising as to be found residing nearer by than one might think. (Although nearer by may also turn out to be far.)
No one knows this better than the American novelist. From Henry James to Scott Fitzgerald to Joyce Carol Oates, the dramatic effect of the (often newly) glamorous boy or girl next door upon the lives of ordinary citizens in proximity—and vice versa—is a story American writers have returned to repeatedly, pilgrims to a shrinelike trough. Such a story may be one of demise (The Great Gatsby or Oates’s Black Water) or of semi-demise (The Portrait of a Lady), or it may have a menacing beam of satire relighting its events, as in Oates’s astonishing new novel, Broke Heart Blues. In such a novel the extraordinary and the ordinary exchange fates, trade secrets, and—in Oates—locker combinations, for the fevered, hierarchical world of adolescence (Foxfire, You Must Remember This, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart, as well as her most famous short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”) is Oates’s great muse.
Broke Heart Blues is about the machinery of celebrity, local and otherwise, especially the local celebrity-making machine that is the American high school. (Every star needs a trapped and intoxicant-inclined audience.) Within that setting it is the story of a teenager named John Reddy Heart, who as a boy moves to the affluent Buffalo, New York, suburb of “Willowsville” with his sister, brother, grandfather, and mother, Dahlia, a Las Vegas blackjack worker, who has somehow—dare the neighbors ask?—inherited a mansion from a Colonel Edgihoffer, a local widower turned deceased gambler. It is the 1960s—in Willowsville an outpost of the 1950s—and the Hearts arrive to this tartan plaid town of Pendleton and Jonathan Logan stores like characters from a David Lynch film, figures of demented glamour, misfittedness, and sex. A platinum blonde along the lines of Lana Turner, Dahlia Heart (dubbed “the White Dahlia”) dresses only in white, wears sunglasses even at dusk, and is the object of salacious rumor and speculation. In less than three years she brings about a Lana Turner- type scandal as well: her son is arrested and tried for the shooting death of a prominent local businessman and brute named Melvin Riggs, who was also Dahlia’s (married) lover. Her son’s defense is that he was protecting his mother from Riggs’s murderous fists.
At this point, if not before, the handsome John Reddy Heart becomes …