Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Review by James Carroll

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
This section contains 1,123 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Carroll

Critical Review by James Carroll

SOURCE: "He Could Not Tell a Lie," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1994, p. 7.

In the following review, Carroll assesses What I Lived For, finding that "the structure of this straightforward mystery is transformed into art of another order entirely, an exemplary work of moral investigation."

John Gardner once said that a novel is a vivid and continuous dream. In What I Lived For, Joyce Carol Oates has written a vivid and continuous nightmare: a savage dissection of our national myths of manhood and success, a bitter portrait of our futile effort to flee the weight of the past, a coldeyed look at our loss of community and family, a shriek at the monsters men and women have become to each other and a revelation of our desolate inner lives. What I Lived For is an American "Inferno."

The novel is set in Union City, a fictional place on the New York shores of Lake Erie, something like Buffalo. It tells the story of Jerome (Corky) Corcoran, a two-bit politician and businessman. Though the book opens with the murder of Corky's father in 1959, the bulk of the action takes place over one long weekend in 1992. A lost weekend, it begins when Corky learns that his lover, Christina Kavanaugh, has been conducting their affair with the permission of her crippled husband, a discovery that shatters Corky's ego and sets him ricocheting all over the city, from one reversal to another, following a zigzag course through layers of social class, racial division, political machination and economic distress.

Ms. Oates has constructed a complex plot, with the apparent suicide of a young black woman, Marilee Plummer, at its center. Corky was acquainted with Marilee, and she was a friend of his grown stepdaughter, Thalia. But she was also involved somehow with Corky's mentor, the Mayor, Oscar Slattery, and with Corky's best friend, the Mayor's son and the local Congressman, Vic Slattery. The novel derives its thumping energy from Corky's inept, drunken, miserable effort to find out the truth of what happened to Marilee, and he does. But in Ms. Oates's boldly inventive narrative, the structure of this straightforward mystery is transformed into art of another order entirely, an exemplary work of moral investigation.

The novel unfolds through Corky's interior monologue, which gives the story its form, punch, immediacy and meaning. Ms. Oates has created a pithy, original voice for her protagonist, a kind of scat prose that is poignant, often hilarious, always credible. She begins by giving us a man's habits of perception and ends by giving us his soul. The effect of this device is to make even crucial turns of the plot available to the reader only indirectly. To Corky's clouded and increasingly panicked mind, the other characters are as elusive as shadows on the wall of a cave—and that is how they appear to the reader. "What's it mean, Corky hasn't a clue," Ms. Oates writes early on. "He's not a guy comfortable inside his own head." But before long the reader is. And soon—here is one of the novel's marvels of subtlety—we know by implication and suggestion more about "what's it mean" than Corky does.

I confess that because the bound galleys touted What I Lived For" as a daring portrait of male sexuality, I brought a suspension of disbelief to the novel somewhat unwillingly. Could the ever-versatile Joyce Carol Oates successfully ground a major work in the befuddled inner life of a middle-aged, urban, male Irish Catholic? I wondered. And, sure enough, Corky's lusty frenzy at first seemed created according to an abstract, wholly pejorative idea of American maleness, one rooted in the pages of Playboy (a magazine to which, in fact, Corky makes steady reference).

Was it Corky who had shaped his attitudes and self-image according to the hackneyed, pathetic Hefner ideal—or was it Ms. Oates, an author taking aim at a straw manhood? The early sex scenes between Christina and Corky, for example, are written with a euphemistic and puerile gusto—"Corky's body flames up, he turns to ashes"—and read like clips from a skin magazine's fantasy page. I might have more quickly trusted Ms. Oates's sardonic purpose, her skewering of the Playboy myth, but I was thrown off by the publisher's note that first serial rights of this novel were sold, lo and behold, to Playboy. Who's being had here? Hugh Hefner or me? But that uncertainty was quickly resolved as the consciousness of Corky Corcoran asserted itself, an irresistible accumulation of fragmentary thoughts, feelings and sensations, all rendered with such skill that the world of the novel was soon brought exactly to life.

When he was 11 years old, Corky witnessed the murder of his father. He hadn't actually seen the faces of the killers, but the police knew who they were and told the boy to identify them anyway. His family wanted him to do it, and surely so did the ghost of his father. But young Corky could not, and that inability comes to seem the very definition of failure, haunting him as an adult and putting him, on the cursed weekend of the novel's action, in mortal danger. "And why wasn't he strong enough, why wasn't it in him. To identify his father's murderers with a simple lie." Especially him, for whom deception of self and others has become a way of life.

The answer to that question is the resolution of the novel, a ringing affirmation of the most basic law of private and public morality and also of fiction: that character is destiny. To follow the drama of Corky Corcoran's tour through the circles of contemporary America's hell is to move from the pity one feels at witnessing the acute suffering of the damned to the fear one feels on realizing that this doom belongs to all of us. The catharsis Ms. Oates achieves in this novel springs from the recognition—ours, not Corky's—that this blind, drunken, skittish human pinball game has in fact been an arrow-straight moral odyssey, aimed at the truth. The boy who doomed himself by refusing to lie has become a man whose commitment to that most basic virtue may not have been entirely lost. When it threatens to cost him everything, we are heartbroken and we are thrilled.

In her 24th novel, Joyce Carol Oates has written an engrossing, moving study of desperate, lonely and lost souls, of America itself in the midst of its decline. One may approach What I Lived For, as I did, with a certain skepticism, but in the reading it grows and grows, accumulating authority, picking up pace and finally leaving the reader awed—at this writer's achievement, yes, but also, and more forcefully, at the surviving human capacity for doing what is right.

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This section contains 1,123 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Carroll
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