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 a high school pop hero and psychosexual mascot. He is both local and national news, and a rock band called Made In USA records a hit called “The Ballad of John Reddy Heart,” which solidifies and commodifies his allure. (Oates uses excerpts of this “song” for the epigraphs of her chapters.) Briefly on the lam, John Reddy becomes a Christ figure, arrested in “Nazarene,” New York. He is prayed for, written about, and otherwise mythologized and marketed. When acquitted by a jury not really of his peers (he is not only a village outsider but a minor tried as an adult), he finishes high school while living above a Chinese restaurant downtown. He is kind, and sexy; moreover, he can, it appears, make the lame walk. (A classmate is cured of her multiple sclerosis some time after a sweet encounter with him.)
High school boys, in a condition of idol worship and study, admiringly remark his indifference to their company, his unique aroma, his idiosyncratic mystique, as well as his rust-flecked Mercury. Willowsville’s high school girls, mooning over him, lose their virginity in his name. Fetching a Coke can from the trash, snatching it “from oblivion,” they in-cant and hyperventilate: “His mouth. His actual mouth!… John Reddy Heart’s actual mouth touched this.” Their erotic fantasies of group lovemaking with him, in the course of the novel, may or may not have come true; in Oates’s surreal and wittily overheated narrative, fantasy for these high schoolers is re-ality. The narrative is too busy to split hairs.
Indeed it is the narrative strategy of Broke Heart Blues that makes it such a stunning and unusual book. While its short middle section is, more or less, a conventionally constructed interlude from the point of view of the adult John Reddy Heart, now a “Mr. Fix-It” for rich or sexy widows with home repair needs, the main sections, which begin and end the book, are written in a kind of choral first-person—multiple and overlapping soliloquies that periodically melt and give way to the more predominant first-person plural. It is a societal narrative, even if that society is only (only!) a high school. (“After high school in America, everything’s posthumous,” the novel winkingly insists.) The narrative is also deeply musical, rhythmic, and hallucinatory in its effects—what novel about high school could not be?
Yet it is difficult to think of any novel remotely like Broke Heart Blues. Oates’s publisher claims that it is written in the “same tradition as” Oates’s own We Were the Mulvaneys, but the narrative in the latter is more controlled, more reliably and conventionally written in the first person. Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (1983) comes to mind, since it is told entirely in the first-person plural, but Oates’s narrative is very different. In its circularity (its staggering and blending of voices that retell the same tale) it resembles a round. In its elaborately constructed community voice it resembles a chorus, though much more than a Greek chorus.
Frankly, it’s bullshit that John Reddy ever uttered the words This will be the day I died. Anyone who knew John knew he was an individual of few words, never anything fancy. Where the rest of us chattered and goofed off continuously like monkeys in a monkey house, John Reddy had dignity.
Here the chorus does not come in and comment on the action or advise the protagonist. It is the action, it is the only voice that counts, and it pours forth like liquid (absent are the tidy, well-muscled paragraphs of Oates’s essays and more conventional fiction) even as it mutates, reexamines, and repeats the same information, with a kind of ecstatic, combing effect. In its suspense and tone, it is as urgent and pulsing as the dramatic choral finale from Carmina Burana but with some doo-wop thrown in for street wisdom and bounce.
It is a technique that conjures then consumes, surrounding and exalting its subject, its hero—John Reddy Heart—at the same time that any real portrait of him is made impossible. That is its point. Certain kinds of adoration obscure. A high school’s local fame-making apparatus (the invented celebrity fueled by both religious and erotic energies, as Oates depicts it, not a completely benign hysteria) is ultimately fearful and repulsed. It devours the human in favor of a ghostly god; Oates’s community choir prefers a creation of its own great choral mind to anything actual. John Reddy Heart is seized and embraced by both town and media—but seized and embraced as a dark idea, a magical object, a powerful toy, and so he is also eventually set aside. Oates’s narrative purposefully imitates the photograph a classmate tries to take of John Reddy Heart driving through town—a “blurred movement along a familiar roadway…like background in a picture in which the foreground, the actual subject, is missing.”
The “subject” is missing, too, because for all its raucous amusements—myriad miniature set pieces involving people who cannot outgrow or get over John Reddy Heart—Broke Heart Blues is a story about economic segregation and social class in America. This becomes most explicit in the book’s final chapterless section, entitled “Thirtieth Reunion,” which brings us forward to the Nineties: John Reddy Heart’s Willowsville High School class has reassembled to take inventory of one another’s accomplishments and get back in touch with their inner teenagers.
It was a delirious time. It was a profound time. A time to celebrate, and to cast one’s thoughts within: “It’s, like, in my deepest heart, you’re all me.” A time for hilarity and a time for gratitude. A fun time—but also a tragic time. A time none of us is likely to forget.
And, historically, once-in-a-lifetime: our thirtieth WHS class reunion.
“Who’ll be missing this time, d’you think?”
“Missing, or dead?”
“Dead is missing.”
So Oates archly begins, in mock-Dickensian fashion, the account of “a record eighty-seven of us out of a graduating class of one hundred thirty-four” converging on “the first weekend in July upon the Village of Willowsville. By plane, by car, practically by foot we came.” Perhaps the prose style urged her on, kept her mindful of Dickens’s purposes as a class portraitist, but Oates’s satirical impulses here no longer cast about gently. “Class” is a kind of pun, even if “reunion” is not. And what Oates gives us is an appalling collection of affluent children grown up to take their place in the established American order. The birds that have winged their way back to the pampering nest are Willowsville’s “high-profile achievers”—a computer software magnate, a renowned criminologist and adviser to the attorney general, a movie star, a college president, a famous writer, an accomplished poet, a political cartoonist for The Washington Post, et cetera.
The girls by and large have returned as “brave-smiling streaked-blond women with sinewy golfers’ legs and flaccid upper arms, necks that would require artful arrangements of scarves in another few years.” The boys return, perhaps, with an “earnest smooth flushed bulb of a head, oyster-pouchy eyes, maroon sport coat and white fishnet pullover.” They are “faces like lost souls that’re your own soul—y’know?” Oates has fun with them all, especially with the poet Richard Eickhorn, author of “Happiness: An Elegy” (“We clapped for Ritchie, we were proud of Ritchie—America needs poets!”) and the novelist Evangeline Fesnacht, author of Death Chronicles and winner of a National Book Award, every one of her books “in trade paperback for Christ’s sake.”
Even at the party, distinction is sought and awards are given (for best-preserved hair, best-preserved figure), the most controversial award being for “the individual who’d made shrewd-est use of the bankruptcy law since the last reunion.” Only one person complains of noninclusion and faulty directions to the pig roast: “It’s exactly as outsiders used to say of Willowsville—it’s a closed, private community! A community of privilege!” The rest involve themselves in an incessant cataloging of accomplishment, heartlessly vague about the difficult lives of the less fortunate. Says the reunion’s co-chair, still speaking in the voice of her girlhood, “I’m a co-chair of this weekend and damned if I’m going to let anything spoil it. This is our thirtieth, guys!“
Their revels collapse a redwood deck, shortly after midnight, and there is, briefly, hope for some true injury. Probably there will only be divorce. “Mack Pifer had long considered himself a ‘tough player’ in the competitive world of high-stakes medical insurance, and he and Millie had endured the protracted adolescences of three typically American children, but his nerves were close to shattered by this party. ‘Even if the deck hadn’t collapsed, it’s likely the Pifers were going to separate soon. The way Millie was dancing with some of the guys—she’d never have behaved that way back in high school. It wasn’t just she’d been drinking, our Millie was hot.”‘ At four in the morning a half-dozen pizzas are delivered “by a wide-eyed black kid in a Cornell T-shirt who ventured with comical caution into our midst like Odysseus descending into the Land of the Dead.”
Does John Reddy Heart make it to the reunion? The novel refuses to say exactly. What the reader does know is that he is there in invocated spirit: all of Willowsville has dined out on his memory, made a kind of pornography of him, even its distinguished writers—perhaps especially its distinguished writers. His classmates have made pilgrimages to his old house and haunts—even to his old parking spaces. They have indulged in group shudders and mournful sighs. But if he has in fact returned—look out, old Mackie is back—no one succeeds in recognizing him (ah, allegory), and he goes away. Later there is the sound of an unanswered knock, a motorcycle roaring off, and only then some despairing female cries. More prosaically, there is a middle-aged man in a red bathing suit, sitting at pool’s edge, whom no one can identify and whom no one likes.
Broke Heart Blues, in its cataloging of the cultural paraphernalia of an era, has a touch of John Updike (the Updike of the Rabbit novels), and in fact Oates has dedicated her book to him. With its infernal dreaminess and contradictory tones there is also a touch of Bertolt Brecht. Certainly there is more than a bit of Brecht in the novel’s final call to the people who did not come to the reunion—inconsequential kids, invisible kids, rougher kids with rougher lives—and the ending’s theatrical cry of “we miss you, we’re thinking of you, we want to see you again, we love you” breaks one’s heart with its boisterous, American-style insincerity. The close is Oates at her blazing best, and one may finish this richly witty and despairing book and recall the loveliest of the Maxwell Anderson-Kurt Weill lyrics that ponder God’s abandonment of man: “And we’re lost out here in the stars…” Joyce Carol Oates has set the cosmos in Buffalo and written its school song.
August 12, 1999