"What I Lived For" is a novel that, by its own bravado and conceits, first soars and then plummets. I was utterly taken by the first hundred pages, only to yearn for the book to come to a merciful conclusion. This was one frustrating book.
It is a novel about an Irish-American pol in upstate New York named Jerome "Corky" Corcoran. When Corky was 11 -- "a scrawny undersized kid" -- his father was gunned down at the doorstep of their posh home on Christmas Eve, 1959.
Tim Corcoran had been a brawling, blustering owner of a construction business in Union City, a heavily ethnic industrial city that sounds a lot like Buffalo. Tim had been in tight with the Irish-run city government. But he had plenty of enemies, including the unions, which objected to Tim's hiring of black, nonunion workers. So on Christmas Eve, two hit men sped by his mansion and shot him full of holes.
Ms. Oates writes:
"At the bottom of the staircase where the steps fanned out and widened he felt the shock of cold air (the front door must have been wide open?) and heard his mother's breathless screams which pierced the air like a continuation of the shattering glass he now realized he'd heard at the time of the gunfire and he realized was the glass of the window of the front door only when he saw that the window was broken, glinting shards of glass on the tile floor of the entryway they call, in this new house, the foyer."
Corky caught a glimpse of the get away car from his upstairs bedroom window, but he wouldn't make a positive identification of the vehicle or the killers, despite heavy pressure from the police to do so. It didn't matter; the police and city government, eager to avenge the death of an important Irish-American, arrested the local union boss. Corky's mother, Theresa, went mad and, as an only child, Corky was raised by relatives.
This is the opening to "What I Lived For," and it is powerful stuff. On the night of his father's funeral, Corky gets drunk for the first time ("He drank from glasses set down and forgotten, beer, ale, wine, whiskey, a giddy mix of tastes in the mouth . . .").
Corky grows up to become a lawyer, a city councilman, worth $2 million or so, a member of Union City's toniest clubs. He is well-liked, a player in the political and business communities. He marries a woman from Union City's upper crust. The marriage fails, but Corky's still a guy on the rise, with many powerful friends and not a few women friends.
But it all falls apart on Memorial Day weekend 1992. A liaison with Christina, his mistress, ends when, after they have made love, she phones her husband. A federal judge who is ailing, he knows all about her extramarital relationship. Corky hits her and walks out in a rage.
There is much, much more. His stepdaughter, an idealistic and emotionally fragile young woman, seems to be approaching a nervous breakdown -- all the while maintaining that the reported suicide of a well-known black woman was really murder. And Corky's ties to the business and political establishments of Union City are putting him in deep trouble, as a scandal of major proportions develops.
While Ms. Oates builds up to the denouement with great care, however, the final 200 pages do not sustain the narrative drive. "What I Lived For" wheezes and sputters when it should be picking up the pace.
I found her form of narration, although initially forceful, ultimately wearying. She tells the story chiefly through Corky, in a stream-of-consciousness style that approximates the speech pattern of a streetwise, blue-collar guy. Take this passage: "Corky knows the chief medical examiner, Brophy. Not well, but a poker contact. Weird guy, you have to hand it to these characters, they got along with dead bodies and death, build their professional careers on corpses. Got to be sick!"
That might have been Corky, but for 600 pages? It's like sitting next to someone at a bar who keeps jabbering in your ear, accentuating a point by punching you on the shoulder.
With its ruminations on men and politics and power, "What I Lived For" touches on some of the same themes Ms. Oates dealt with in "Black Water," her excellent novel of a few years back. As always, her eye for detail is terrific and her talent for description borders on astonishing.
But like John Updike, another author with great descriptive powers, Ms. Oates can just plain wear you down. In this book, perhaps less would not have been more, but it would have been welcome.
7+ Mr. Warren is a copy editor at The Sun.
Title: "What I Lived For"
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
0$ Length, price: 608 pages, $23.95