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Joyce Carol Oates: Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart

The blurb of the book says that it is intricately textured. What the hell does intricately textured mean? The title of this novel comes from a Stephen Crane poem. The novel starts out in upstate New York in the 1950s. Like other Oates characters, the characters of this novel carry problems from their parents. Thirteen years old Iris Courtney has a father who is a compulsive gambler and is in debt from his gambling. Her mother is an alcoholic. Iris, who is white, is attracted to the fifteen year old Jinx Fairchild, who is black and a high school basketball star. One day she goes to buy cigarettes at the store where Jinx is working. On her way home, she is harassed by Little Red Garlock, daughter of Vesta, who has been abused and abandoned by her husband. Jinx comes to her rescue and, after a fight, ends up killing Little Red and dumping the body in the river. Iris gives the police misleading information and they do not catch the perpetrator.

Over the next few years, Iris and Jinx go their own separate ways. Iris’ parents separate, with her mother becoming more and more of an alcoholic, while Jinx focuses on his basketball. Both, of course, remember not only the death of Little Red but how much they are linked to one another. However, to avoid suspicion, they rarely communicate. Jinx hopes for a basketball scholarship but breaks his leg in a game and cannot play again. He gets married and has children, while his brother is murdered in a drug deal. Iris, meanwhile, wins a scholarship to university while her mother dies of cirrhosis of the liver. Iris meets Alan Savage and though she still thinks of Jinx, she finally agrees to marry him. Only when she visits her uncle, who owns a photography studio and has recently taken a photo of Jinx before Jinx went off to Vietnam, does she realize that he still loves her, as he left a photo for her. Iris tells her uncle she loved him but still plans to marry Alan.

Racism is, of course, the key theme of this book but the usual Oates themes do show up – the sins of the parents affecting their children, gratuitous violence, the feeling of the main characters that they are alone and isolated and, of course, atonement for their sins. But, once again, Oates tells a very fine story and one that is well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Dutton