Oates' 'Blues': from mystery to myth

June 20, 1999|By Melvin Jules Bukiet | By Melvin Jules Bukiet,Special to the Sun

"Broke Heart Blues," by Joyce Carol Oates. Dutton. 369 pages. $24.95

I hated high school, and everyone I know hated high school, and I wouldn't trust anyone who didn't hate high school. But for some people high school is "the best time of their lives" and for the characters in Joyce Carol Oates' new book, "Broke Heart Blues," it seems the only time in their lives that matters.

Starting in the 1960s and spanning decades, "Broke Heart Blues" is a group portrait of jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, greasers and prom queens in a wealthy suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. For the most part, their adolescent dramas might have been minor, even to the protagonists, if not for a young man named John Reddy Hear.

When John's mother, a silver-nailed, platinum-haired gold-digger from Las Vegas, inherits a large house in Willowsville from an elderly ... friend, she picks up stakes and moves there, lock, stock and three children in a Cadillac. Practically from the moment he arrives, John is the subject of feverishly eroticized gossip. John is a loner who "seemed to exist on the far side of an abyss." Sultry and solitary, "[h]e doesn't need other people."

But what transforms John Reddy Heart from mysterious to mythical is a crime. Local tycoon Melvin Riggs is found dead in John's mother's bedroom, and John is accused of "kill[ing] a man, and a stark-naked man at that, discharging a .45 caliber bullet into his brain in an instant of passion never to be reversed, erased, or even comprehended."

Suddenly the entire town is aswoon, and we follow its ardor by means of a shifting, choral first person plural voice ("we") that narrates the novel. This device, borrowed from Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Virgin Suicides," which also takes a teen melodrama and explodes it to mythic proportions, provides a communal view of both high school and larger society that manages to be simultaneously abstract and intimate. The voice declares, "The future rush[ed] at us like a windstorm -- dazzling blinding light. We were excited, we were terrified."

Likewise, the first half of "Broke Heart Blues" is a windstorm, furious and dense, part catalog, part spectacle. Oates mixes in surrealistic visions, rock lyrics, a dash of O.J., and, though the book was obviously written before, a splash of Littleton. Often these throes of imaginative excess lead to redundance; I stopped counting the number of times John's car is described as "acid green."

As long as Oates remains within the realm of Willowsville's own "state of ecstatic suspension" we, too, are willing to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, the second half of the novel veers into a sentimental and disappointingly humanizing journey into the mundane. By traveling back to John's childhood in Vegas and forward to his anti-climactic affair with a divorced woman, Oates undermines her hero's stature and also her novel's manic exuberance.

Finally, we return to Willowsville for a long epilogue that brings the multiple graduates together at a wild 30th anniversary reunion.

By now, one is a novelist, one a movie star, one a scientist, while many have moved into their parents' houses and taken up their parents' lives. They drink, they cry, they confess ancient true loves (sometimes requited, sometimes not), but the very intensity of their memories of John Reddy Heart makes it difficult to perceive of them as individuals instead of the aggregate.

Melvin Jules Bukiet's most recent novels are "After" and "Signs and Wonders." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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