I Lock My Door Upon Myself. Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco. 98 pages. $15.95. A black man. A white woman. Together in a rowboat going downstream, oblivious to the world. Don't they know they're heading for disaster? Don't they know about the rapids and the waterfall? People don't survive such things. And yet the black man eases up and "lifts the oars and rests them calmly in place as the woman sits continuing to watch him closely, possibly smiling, are the two of them smiling? -- talking together? -- hearing nothing of the shouts from shore and nothing of the increasing roar of the falls ahead, the sixty-foot drop on the other side of the bridge and the churning white water beyond . . ."
The scene is compelling. It brings the reader into the book in much the same way as Red Garlock's murder does in Joyce Carol Oates' last novel, "Because It's Bitter and Because It's My Heart." The first section worked so well that more than one reviewer, including me, suggested it might stand alone.
Unfortunately, we got our wish. "I Lock My Door Upon Myself" is a novel that is derivative. The themes of devel
opmental hardship and a white woman's attraction to a black man were much more expertly handled in her earlier novel. In this latest effort the main character, Calla, moves about with the same restlessness that gripped Iris Courtney in "Because It's Bitter and Because It's My Heart." (Even the language of the "roaming scenes" is very similar.) Unlike Iris, who is skillfully portrayed, Calla is incomplete.
What is behind Calla's embracing religion? Why is she detached from herself? Why does she do anything? It is all a mystery without adequate support in the text. The enigmatic character ought to be grounded in some pattern of motivations. In this book, unlike her earlier novel, Ms. Oates fails to do this.
The problems seem to be: First, "I Lock My Door Upon Myself" repeats "Heart." This leaves the reader with the feeling he is perusing an outtake of another, better, work. Perhaps more time and distance by Ms. Oates would have improved things. Remember Horace's admonition about too much haste! The novella form seems uncomfortable in this instance. Ms. Oates is a skillful novelist and short-story writer, but this novella has neither the tight impact of a short story nor the detailed development of a novel. Despite a promising opening, the result is well beneath Ms. Oates' standard.
Those readers who liked "Because It's Bitter and Because It's My Heart" will be disappointed in this one. Those readers who haven't read the other book, should. It is light-years beyond this one.
Mr. Boylan is associate professor of philosophy at Marymount University.