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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

them (1969) by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates
Book Review
them (1969)
by Joyce Carol Oates

  Making it Joyce Carol Oates feel like a milestone of sorts.  You'd be hard pressed to name an author who has combined literary prestige with a work ethic that would make a Harelquin romance author blush.   Wikipedia puts her at "over 40 novels, plus plays, novellas, volumes of short stories, non-fiction and poetry.  Perhaps she's not quite as cool as, say, Joan Didion, but she's hard to match in terms of that combination of market place presence and liteary credibility.  them, which won the National Book award in 1969, is her single best known work, a stark piece of realism depicting the intertwined lives of a nuclear family: mother, son and daughter, over the course of the 1950s through the riots of 1967.

  It's hard not to compare them to to the slightly earlier books of Saul Bellow.  Oates' Detroit it a parallel to Bellow's Chicago.  Jules, the son and primary male protagonist in a novel otherwise dominated by female narrators (his Mother and sister) is a more disreputable version of Bellow's Augie March.  But Oates is raw where Bellow is mannered.

   them is above all a portrait of post-war white, working class instability.  Her characters have nothing to do with the Beats or Hippies.  Maureen, the sister, spends a good page or so puzzling over the emotional reaction to the death of John F. Kennedy, "People die all the time, here, in Detroit;" she says.   The subject matter of them includes whoring (a lot of whoring), drugs, rape, robbery and murder, committed by various of the narrators, but mostly by Jules, who is shown descending into a life of criminal misery.

  Calling them a downer doesn't really do it justice.   It's as bad as a Zola novel from the 19th century.  Whether Oates is actually sympathetic to her characters is open to debate.  First of all, there's the title "them" distinguishing the family as an other.  There is also her use of a fake "Based on reality" framing device, featuring Oates herself as a character, teaching the sister at a community college.  All three of the family members do things that are best characterized as "immoral."  It's a wild ride, something like a limited HBO series about urban life in America.

  The ending chapters, depicting the Detroit riots of 1967 are a very good description of that place and time, and one of the earlier actual literary depictions of those important events.

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