Steven's Book Reviews: A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 2/17)

Steven's Book Reviews: A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 2/17)

Being a bibliophile, the name Joyce Carol Oates is one that I've seen bandied about everywhere, yet I didn't have the impetus to read any of her novels. I heard that she was preachy, hyper-feminist, and subversive.

Have I ever mentioned how fruitless it is to listen to any critique but your own?

From the second I picked up Ms. Oates newest magnum opus, A Book of American Martyrs, It was like someone hooked an IV full of caffeine into my veins. I sat breathless, from the first minute, until I finished the 740-page tome in a mere four days.

Oates, who is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, has managed to take one of the most controversial and thorny topics of our age, abortion, and center a narrative that sheds any cliche you might expect from such a charged subject.

The plot concerns a man, Luther Dunphy, whose fanatical, militant pro-life religious convictions drive him to assassinate Augustus "Gus" Voorhees, an abortion doctor who has dedicated his whole life to making abortions more accessible to all women. After the deed is completed in the first few chapters, our focused is shifted to the plight of their respective families, who try to pick up the pieces of their intense grief.

Several early reviewers complained that having an uneducated, "roughneck" man being the figurehead of the pro-life firmament of this volume automatically disqualifies any sort of "objective" viewpoint for his character. On the other side of the coin, they felt Voorhees was portrayed as a saint, a man totally devoid of self and living solely for his cause.

What those reviewers failed to realize was, though their views are front and center, the true driving force of characterizing these men in these ways is because it allows us to see two different types of families deal with grief, life, and each other. Dunphy's family is white trash, filled with drunkenness, fighting, and blind religious convictions. Voorhees' family is portrayed as the WASPy elite, their grief noted in eloquent phrases and ethical rebellion.

Oates is astonishing in the way she weaves the loom of narrative to highlight the subtle intricacies of dealing with grief. Her prose is never purple, her pacing is never dull, and her eye for detail is on par with Victor Hugo. You very rarely feel that this is a novel, which I believe is the shining goal of any fictional work. You feel that this is happening, in real time, right before your very eyes. Her language is poetic, yet never overwrought, and she fits a perfect amount of American Midwest colloquialisms to pepper the language with a sense of place.

If Oates can be faulted for anything, it's the fact that there are some longueurs in the last 200 pages, a few road bumps as the plot races towards the climax. A bit of trimming would have been appreciated, but these are small complaints in the grand scheme of this fascinating story.

I would suggest that, before picking up this tome, you hide your predilections and prejudices from your sight and see the world through the eyes of these characters, joining them on a journey that is filled with anguish, tortured soul-searching, and, ultimately, that most elusive of treasures: hope.

A Book of American Martyrs is a tight, breathtaking look at an issue that, to this day, is threatening to rend our country in twain.


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