A teen-age gang, with a feminist twist

August 10, 1993|By Linnea Lannon | Linnea Lannon,Knight-Ridder News Service

Joyce Carol Oates has an uncanny ability to be a bit ahead of the curve. Last year the riveting "Black Water" suggested what it might have been like to die in a car plunged into water by a senator. The reference to Chappaquiddick and Ted Kennedy was unmistakable, which is perhaps why I approach Joe McGinniss' book about Ted Kennedy, "The Last Brother," with a certain ennui. I've read the history (William Manchester's "Death of a President," among others) and the fiction, so who needs Mr. McGinniss' fictional nonfiction?

Now Ms. Oates tackles teen-age gangs. They're not a new facet of urban, and suburban, life, to be sure, but one that continues to shock the nation -- the sex points garnered by the Lakewood, Calif., Spur Posse, for example. But in "Foxfire," Ms. Oates offers a feminine twist to the subject, for Foxfire is a gang of girls.

The time and terrain are familiar to Ms. Oates' readers: a blue-collar town in upstate New York in the 1950s. We last visited this area in "Because It is Bitter, Because It is My Heart."

Hammond, near Lake Ontario, is a town not unlike Ms. Oates' native Lockport, N.Y. As in "Because It is Bitter," adults play a small role in the lives of these teen-agers: They tend to be abusive, drunk, absent or some combination of the three. It is a world limited in every way.

1% The gang's history is recalled by

Madeleine Faith Wirtz, known at the time as Maddy-Monkey because of "my skinny wiry frame, my crimped kinky dark-brown hair lifting like a crest from my forehead, something sly-shy, simian and pushed-together in my narrow face." She's the reader in the group, the stand-in for Ms. Oates.

Foxfire is largely the creation of Margaret Ann Sadovsky, better known as Legs.

Legs is an angry young woman, at her best an early feminist, quick to see injustice and eager to do something about it. At her worst, she'd be called a juvenile delinquent by any adult who took the time to notice.

Foxfire's first triumph, then, is against Mr. Buttinger, a math teacher who "confined his teasing persecutions to the weaker students, like Rita O'Hagan." Mr. Buttinger humiliates the somewhat dim but sweet Rita in class, then keeps her after school for discipline, much of which involves touching this budding young woman.

Legs' anger is vivid and her reasoning convinces the others: "If Rita wasn't there he'd pick on someone else and if that person

wasn't there

he'd pick on someone else till it got down finally to one of us." Foxfire's revenge is public -- painted on the side of Mr. Buttinger's car -- and his retirement encourages Legs to right other wrongs.

But righting wrongs also leads to doing wrong. Legs' anger, unleashed but unchanneled -- or rather, channeled so inchoately -- leads Foxfire from humiliating creeps to theft and finally kidnapping. That the kidnapping victim, a fine upstanding member of the community, is also a creep by Foxfire standards comes as no surprise: The girls rarely meet a man who doesn't leer.

An unfair view of men? Perhaps. But Ms. Oates is on target in her portrayal of these girls, of lives limited so by the time and mind-set of that place. Maddy will get out -- that we know from the onset -- because she's the reader, the thinker, the one who learns in school, even, she admits, from the loathsome Mr.

Buttinger.

But the others -- even Legs, with her native intelligence and cunning and righteousness -- are lower-middle-class girls of the '50s. Their options are limited -- hence, the lure of gang life, independence, action.

Even if you are horrified at where these girls are going, it is hard not to be caught up in the author's pace and prose, her perceptions about their budding sexuality, their seeming cynicism, their need for some kind of family.

"Foxfire" is another fine -- and disturbing -- addition to Ms. Oates' huge body of work.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Foxfire"

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Publisher: William Abrahams/Dutton

Length, price: 328 pages, $20

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