“What are Americans like today?” John Steinbeck set out to answer that question in Travels with Charley, his 1962 travelogue, but it had been a theme of his fiction, as it had been a theme of many works by American writers loosely labeled naturalists. It was not a query of merely local interest. America was to be the world’s great experiment in freedom and self-reliance. How its people adapted to their conditions and expectations—whether they would thrive or wither in the great spaces given to them—could be understood to suggest something about human nature itself.
Stephen Crane combed through Bowery brothels and tenements for his early stories and his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. For An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser famously adopted details from the sensational trial of Chester Gillette, who murdered his inconveniently pregnant girlfriend Grace Brown, a New York skirt factory worker, in 1906. In The Executioner’s Song, a “true-life novel,” Norman Mailer incorporated everything from court documents to transcripts of Good Morning America to amass a portrait of a killer, Gary Gilmore, whose “senseless” acts and eventual execution seemed products of a pitiless social order.
Joyce Carol Oates—with the Victorian scale of her output and her headlong style—may seem an unlikely member of this group, but over the past several decades she has built an impressive body of work exploring specifically American manifestations of violence and victimhood.* She has focused chiefly on the sinking fortunes of the working class, its messy descent into marginalization, drug addiction, and despair. Many of her novels and short stories are set in the least glamorous outposts of a once-great empire, in the landfills and housing developments of anonymous suburbs, on the outskirts of decaying cities, and in her own imaginary “Sparta,” a struggling city on the Black River in upstate New York where meth labs sprout on rural farmland and crime seems to be the only renewable resource. She has set herself to address Steinbeck’s question, and her answer is terrifying.
Virtually every story in Dear Husband examines claustrophobic, poisoned, sometimes murderous relationships between siblings, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, parents and infants. In “Landfill,” Hector Campos Jr., a freshman at Michigan State University, chafes against his parents’ anxious expectations, barely passing his classes. Tipping drunkenly into a garbage chute during pledge week at a fraternity house, he ends up crushed in the Tioga County landfill, illustrating a process that eluded him in his introductory science course: “species change not by free will but blindly.” In “The Heart Sutra,” Andre Gatteau, a renowned older poet, practices meditation in a Zen monastery in the Adirondacks—a ritualized rejection of his fiancée, who, in a borrowed house nearby, prepares to slit her own veins and those of their unwanted child.
The epistolary form of two brilliant pieces—“A Princeton Idyll” and the title story—harshly illuminates the locked perspectives, of family, class, and sex, in which the characters find themselves. In “A Princeton Idyll,” Sophie Niemarck, granddaughter of a once-prominent logician at the Institute for Advanced Study—a colleague of Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman—gets in touch with the elderly Muriel Kubelik, a former housekeeper in her grandparents’ Princeton home. She wants to solve the family quandary of her grandfather’s precipitous decline into alcoholism, depression, and death. The letters of Niemarck, who lives in Minneapolis and writes children’s riddle books under the pen name “Sophie Riddle,” reveal a single woman who’s insecure despite her professional success. “I was a chubby little dimple-faced girl of seven,” she writes. “Now I am a chubby big dimple-faced girl of forty-three” who is “becoming desperate” to unravel her family history.
After a stiff reply from Kubelik acknowledging the former relationship, Niemarck pours out her gratitude, begging the older woman for details of her grandfather’s decline. “My memory of that time is confused and fractured like a broken mirror,” Niemarck writes, but she recollects a strange scene on the day of her grandfather’s funeral, in early March of 1969. Left behind in her grandparents’ house while the rest of the family and Kubelik are at the cemetery, she helps herself to the luncheon that has been set out, and Kubelik, returning early to prepare for the guests, finds her there:
You stared at me as if you didn’t know me, what a little troll I was hiding in the privet hedge with chocolate on my mouth, Oh Sophie you said and quickly you brought me back into the house to wash my face saying what if someone had seen me eating chocolates at such a time! and later you said something so strange, Muriel, I remember it to this day. That chocolate on your face, Sophie, for a moment I thought you’d hurt yourself and it was blood.
This confusion prefigures a more momentous misunderstanding between the women, for Niemarck cannot imagine that Kubelik, a mere servant, was the catalyst that destroyed her grandfather’s life. Plying the older woman with gifts of cash after learning that Kubelik resents her family for reneging on a promised bequest, Niemarck eventually prompts her to open up. “Dr. Niemarks” was “good-hearted,” Kubelik allows, but his wife was silly and vain. “All the ladies of Princeton must have know this,” she writes, “how little they counted for except through their husbands.”
Kubelik eventually gives Niemarck what she’s paying for. She describes how a colleague of Dr. Niemarck’s, a Nietzsche scholar, once took a fancy to her, asking her out to dinner for her birthday. The nascent romance is cut short by the Niemarcks, who pull the scholar aside to tutor him in the ways of Princeton elite. The invitation is withdrawn, the housekeeper—in her best black taffeta dress—is sent off to change her clothes, and a resentment is fanned into flame. While acknowledging her employers’ occasional kindness, Muriel Kubelik cannot control her bitterness at being put in her place:
Its bad times you remember when you are angry but truely they were kind to me. Yet I hated them so, it was like a fire inside me. Even your parents, I did not know well, I hated that they could “boss” me if they wished…. Even this little baby Sophie with blue eyes & fat cheeks sometimes I hated & wished in my heart would sicken & die.
Kubelik watches and waits, finding pornographic magazines hidden among Dr. Niemarck’s papers. When the moment presents itself, she conceals an obscene page in three-year-old Sophie’s book:
It was a picture book of baby elephants & inside was a page from the magazine of a naked woman sprawled to show her cunt & her fingers stuck inside & her lipstick mouth open & the words were SUCK ME TILL I SCREAM BIG DADDY I LOVE IT.
After its discovery—shamed, shunned by his wife and children—Dr. Niemarck begins drinking heavily. His only friend in his declining years is the housekeeper paid to take pity on him:
Once I was washing Dr N & saw how his old-man belly was loose & yellow like old piano keys. His old man pennis hung down between his legs like a chicken neck. His skin was grizzled, his chest was caved in & you could see the ribs. His breath was sour, like something rotted. He said, Muriel, will you touch me?… I told him yes I would touch him, I washed him with a sponge & dried him in soft towels as you would a baby not wanting to chafe his sore skin.
When he promised money in his will she knew she would be cheated, “always one like me is cheated by the bosses & I did not care.”
By this time, Sophie Niemarck is trying to block the flow of reminiscences, lashing out at her correspondent and calling her a “cockroach.” Kubelik calmly writes back, “I am not a stranger to cockroaches…. Your bitch-grandma made me spray DDT till I was sick, in the kitchen & bathrooms of that old house.” The housekeeper has turned the tables, reveling in her power: “Its a happy memory when Dr. N wept to be touched by me. All these years it was lost, now I have it again.” Assuming the hauteur of a grand Princeton lady, she concludes: “For this I thank you. You dont owe me a penny.” The master–servant relationship is revealed as a tissue of condescension and contempt.
But the most forceful expression of class and family oppression comes in “Dear Husband,” a story inspired by Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned all five of her children in 2001. The approach is characteristic of Oates’s work of recent years: she reshapes the roman à clef into a suspenseful taxonomy of extreme mental states, transforming a lurid scandal—Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, Chappaquiddick, Jeffrey Dahmer’s cannibalistic murders—into an analysis of minds under pressure. She portrays states in which primitive emotional cues—fear, disgust, appetite—set off primitive responses; yet even in characters pushed past reason she perceives the taint of a deforming environment.
In “Dear Husband,” cast as a suicide note left by the murderous mother, intense religious extremism has led Lauri Lynn McKeon to believe that beside her all-enveloping religion her life is “a tiny bubble…of no consequence.” Her children, she’s convinced, can attain peace and idealized perfection only in death, with an idealized Father: “They will no longer be dirty, and squabbling, but they will be perfect as they were meant to be…perfect in His bosom.” The internalized demands of her husband and in-laws for ever more cleanliness press her to murder and suicide, to scrub out her children and herself:
I have tried to keep this house clean…. I am ashamed of what the police officers will discover. The boys’ rooms are not clean. The boys’ bedclothes are stained. There is a harsh smell of the baby’s diapers and of bleach. The twins’ hair cannot be kept free of snarls…. And so many dirtied clothes, socks and sneakers, and towels. Worse yet are certain things that have been hidden. I am so ashamed of what will be revealed to you, after I am gone.
Lauri Lynn finds her own fecundity repulsive, escalating the challenge to match the ordered suburban households around her: the McKeon’s house is one of the “Colonials” in “New Meridian Estates.” In the eyes of her husband, her reverend, and Jesus himself, she can find only disdain. “It is the scorn of the male,” she says flatly, “it cannot be contested.” She cowers before her husband’s contempt—whether real or imagined—and only in the last lines of her letter does she disclose what she has hidden from him, a housewife’s ultimate disgrace:
Lastly dear husband, I beg you to forgive me for the heavy casserole dish hidden beneath the cellar stairs, that is badly scorched and disgusting for not even steel wool could scrape away the burnt macaroni and cheese, now in cold water it has been soaking since Thanksgiving…. A gift from your mother, it is CorningWare and expensive and might yet be scoured clean and made usable again, by another’s hand.
At the close of “Dear Husband,” one is presented with the disconcerting thought that, for Lauri Lynn, suicide may indeed have been the surest way to silence her delusions and to escape the condemnation of church and family.
These stories, it must be said, are unrelievedly grim. A few have a dashed-off quality, and there are repetitions. Too many nostrils are “pinched”; there are one too many references to sea-worms. But at its best, Oates’s work is powerful and revealing. Take this description of an apocalyptic yet ordinary American landscape:
Taverns and gas stations and automobile/truck/motorcycle dealerships adorned with fluttering banners, house trailers propped up on cinder blocks in the pine woods, bungalows, habitations that appeared to be no more than concrete foundations in the rocky earth, like bomb shelters. There were bait shops, yet more taverns, roadside wood-frame churches, bullet-ridden road signs, lakeside cabins, small boats on trailers, junked vehicles in the ditch by the side of the road, mattresses at the roadside, abandoned furniture as if families had thrown off their chains in a frenzy of repudiation and loss.
Oates cannot be faulted for finding us as we are.
The sheer nervous force of characters’ voices propels the reader through such landscapes in Oates’s latest novel, Little Bird of Heaven. Set in Sparta, New York, the novel revolves around the unsolved 1983 murder of Zoe Kruller, lead singer for a popular local bluegrass band, Black River Breakdown. The police investigate two suspects: Zoe’s husband, Delray Kruller, a former biker and local garage owner of “mixed blood” from the Seneca Indian reservation, and her lover, Eddy Diehl, a construction foreman. The story is told in retrospect by Krista Diehl, Eddy’s teenage daughter, and Aaron Kruller, Zoe and Delray’s son. Each in their own way is drawn into the mystery, but the real core of the novel—its retroactive suspense—lies not in the resolution of the crime but in the observation of how the murder corrupts and threatens everyone connected to it, “corroding…lives like deep pockets of rust in the hulks of abandoned vehicles.”
The first section, told by Krista Diehl as a young adult, moves back and forth in time, from Krista’s early childhood—when Zoe Kruller works as a waitress at Honeystone’s Dairy, serving ice cream and flirting with customers—through the shock of Zoe’s murder and the suspicion of her father’s involvement. The narrator shuffles the pieces together, realizing that the ice cream she took from Zoe’s hand, “so sweet your mouth watered like a baby’s,” was an initiation, a hint that more ominous adult appetites spring from infantile needs.
This is a novel about appetites and ambitions: the quest to satisfy them, the frustration of failing, the punishment for having tried. Eddy Diehl, a Vietnam vet and working stiff, yearns to break out of his class, refurbishing classic cars in a stab at upward mobility. Driven from job and home by his entanglement with Zoe, he acts out a quasi-incestuous seduction of his daughter to punish his wife. Krista is easily seduced, relishing his mingled smells of alcohol and tobacco smoke, believing that “no one else loved me like this. No one else would wish to possess me.” She rejects her pious, recessive mother in favor of her teasing father, who, ignoring a restraining order, shows up at basketball practice to spirit her away in one of his juiced-up cars. Everything about him is sexualized:
The suede coat he wore seemed to be padded with a woolly down like a large upright tongue—what comfort such a burly coat could give, if you were squeezed against it. And dark-graying hairs sprouting up from Daddy’s chest visible at his throat, what comfort in pressing my face against that throat, hiding my face there.
The cravings he inspires in his daughter—for “a pleasurable sort of pain”—bind her to him: “Daddy’s cruelty…just a part of Daddy’s love.”
Between secret rendezvous with her father, who has moved from town to town, Krista finds herself drawn to Aaron Kruller, Zoe’s silent, angry son, “a predator male” marked by the discovery of his mother’s beaten, strangled body, half-frozen and half-naked, in the upstairs bedroom of the row house she was sharing with a friend. Shadowing him, Krista lurks near the scene of the crime, catching the notice of Jacky DeLucca, Zoe’s roommate, a cocktail waitress and party girl whose “moon-shaped” face is “shiny as if rubbed with a greasy rag, and swollen.” Her frizzy hair dyed beet-red, her enormous body packed into a lacy black negligee covered with a man’s flannel shirt, her “doll-like features squashed together inside [a] fatty face,” she drags Krista into the house, serves her hot chocolate, and regales her with tales of Zoe’s marriage, Zoe’s son, Zoe’s murder.
DeLucca is a tour de force: Oates inhabits her, and her voice pours forth in a monologue ranging from sly manipulation to wounded outrage. DeLucca’s appearances, and those of another character, “Dutch Boy,” a crazed local meth manufacturer, capture the shaky, collapsing substructure of failed cities with no jobs, no industry, no agriculture, and no purpose, their human flotsam drifting through cocktail lounges, tattoo parlors, halfway houses, and homeless shelters “like sea creatures in the ocean, all so hungry, and never enough food.” Here the saltwater similes—Jacky DeLucca getting out of a car is “like a soft-oozing mollusk squeezing out of its shell”—are brilliantly apt: in this habitat, instinct is all.
Eddy Diehl kidnaps his daughter for their final assignation, taking her to a Days Inn (how that chain must love Joyce Carol Oates) where he has registered under the name “John Cass,” his homage to Johnny Cash, the great troubadour of the dispossessed American male. Drunk and belligerent, he engages her in a last, forced act of intimacy, exposing the disillusionment that governed his life. His “eye-opener,” he tells her, arrived the summer he was discharged from the army and found construction work in the Thousand Islands, surrounded by mansions and yachts—wealth he never knew existed. He woke up to the fact that the system was weighted against people like him:
What the world is, Krissie, is people owning things, and owning you…. I was twenty-two and didn’t know shit. Not a fraction of what’s going on. No more than a beetle would know crawling over the hull of one of those forty-foot Chris-Craft yachts…. You get to realize, it hurts like hell, like a tire iron shoved up your ass, all that you are not going to have.
In the grip of the same bitter rage that beset Muriel Kubelik, he tells her, “Every fucking place in the Thousand Islands I helped build, I’d have liked to come back at night and set on fire.”
In the end, Krista and Aaron, brought together by Jacky DeLucca on her deathbed, learn the killer’s identity. In a fascinating final scene, they consummate their “ravenous” oedipal appetites (this time in a Sheraton): “Together we’d grappled underwater…. Like slithering fish. Like eels.” Often, in Oates, the loss of personality, in the wash of some overwhelming experience, is chaotic and terrifying; here it is also transcendent.
Ultimately, the real murderer is somehow Sparta itself, “the doomed city on the Black River,” a landscape that is a product of “slow violence…like something forced through a meat grinder.” Little Bird of Heaven shows us a people—male and female, poor and poorer, innocent and accused—destroyed by their environment, devolving into predator and prey. As Krista flees the city one last time, she feels its eroding, still-alluring glamour:
The ruins of an American city devastated by war, a post-industrial American city in upstate New York—but what exactly had happened here? There was a strange glaring broken beauty to the rubble-strewn lot as of the ruins of antiquity but these were not ruins to be named, let alone celebrated. These were ruins lacking all memory, identity.
Steinbeck’s marine biologist muse, Ed Ricketts, wrote of “breaking through” to a truer, more accurate understanding of our animal nature. In her own way, Oates works on that primal level, breaking through the degraded, dehumanizing scenery to expose the raw materials of human nature, forcing us to confront precisely who—and what—we are.