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Joyce Carol Oates: them

Loretta Botsford is once again a more typical Oates key character. She is a young but adult woman from a poor background. Her father is a drunk. She is in love with Bernie Malin. While sleeping with him, she hears an explosion and discovers that her brother, Brock, has shot and killed Malin. She manages to get away and meets a police officer, Howard Wendall, whom she knows slightly. He rapes her on the kitchen table but promises to help her dispose of the body. However, in return, she has to marry him, which she does. They have a son, Jules, and, later, after Howard has been fired for taking money from prostitutes, two daughters, Maureen and Betty. Howard goes off to fight in World War II , while Loretta and the children move to Detroit. Loretta is arrested for prostitution but manages to pull through and reunites with Howard, till he is killed in an industrial accident. She drifts around with various men but seems to remain relatively unscathed by her life style.

Much of the rest of the book concerns Maureen and Jules. After a checkered childhood, Jules engages in various petty criminal activities but does also have occasional legitimate jobs. He also has dreams of wealth both working for Bernard Geffen, a gangster, as well as with his rich girlfriend, who turns out to be psychotic and shoots him, though does not kill him. He becomes involved in the politics of the late 1960s and kills a police officer in the Detroit riots of 1967. He ends up heading out West – working for an anti-poverty programme in California. As for Maureen, she is always looking for the peaceful life but she is always the victim. Like her brother, she wants money to escape from the poor background into which they were born and gets it by sleeping with older men but when Loretta’s second husband finds it, he beats her senseless and she is scarred emotionally from this beating for some time. She does go to college and even has Oates as her teacher, writing to her to complain both that Oates thinks – erroneously in Maureen’s view – that books are more important than her life and also that those have lived life (like Maureen) know more than the readers and writers of books (like Oates). Jules ends up with his little victory, heading off West, and Maureen has her victory by seducing an unassuming, married community college lecturer. As Oates herself has pointed out, their victories may be small but they are victories and they are their victories.

This was perhaps the book that brought Oates to the forefront of American writers and a very fine book it is. She travels over three generations and is able to write a very convincing story of those on the margin of society, just getting by but getting by. Jules and Maureen may be failures by the standards of others but by their own and, presumably, by Oates’ standards, they have overcome their travails and made a success of their life. Oates’ telling of their tale is well worth your time.

Publishing history

First published 1969 by Vanguard Press