Wednesday, December 16, 2009

303. Them – Joyce Carol Oates

History: Published in 1969, this book won the National Book Award in 1970.
Plot: Them explores the complex struggles of American life through three down-on-their-luck characters—Loretta, Maureen and Jules—who are attempting to reach normality and the American dream through marriage and money.
The story begins with Loretta Botsford and her brother Brock as teenagers, living in a "fair-sized city on a midwestern canal", Detroit, in the 1930s. Loretta falls in love with Bernie Malin, and sleeps with him. Later in the night, Brock shoots Bernie in the head, and Bernie dies suddenly. Loretta runs away, to her friend Rita's place. Rita lends her some clothes and she wanders off. She meets Howard Wendall, an older cop to whom she confesses the death of Bernie Malin. They later marry, and she bears her son Jules (who was hinted to be Bernie Malin's son). Loretta and Howard live close to Mama and Papa Wendall's house, on the south side of town. Soon after the birth of Jules, Howard is busted for taking money from prostitutes. The Wendalls move into the country house of Howard's Uncle Fritz, the house keeper, and Connie Wendall, Loretta's sister-in-law. Loretta bore her daughters Maureen, and Betty in that country house.
When World War II breaks out, Howard leaves his family to fight in Europe. Meanwhile, Jules grows up to be a fast, energetic child who hangs around older children, and is never still. (Maureen gets her way by being the quiet, shy, delicate girl, while Betty is always annoying) There were two scenes where Jules as a child was fascinated by fire; when he burns down a deserted barn and when a plane crashes in Detroit.
Jules, Maureen and Betty are all sent to a Catholic school in Detroit, after Loretta decided to move there to be near her friend Rita. Jules takes on the role of the "bad boy" who hangs out with kids who steal from stores and smoke at school. Howard is no longer in the picture, and Loretta is struggling with poverty, and failing as a parent. Jules leaves home, Loretta has a boyfriend Furlong, and becomes pregnant. Betty is developing into a criminal and sociopath.
The book then focuses on Maureen, a teenager now. She is quiet, and well behaved. She cooks and cleans for the family while Loretta apparently is doing nothing. She does her homework, she cares about her future, she wants to leave. To do this she needs money, so she begins to sleep with men to get money. She does this for a couple of years, until she is caught by Furlong, who beats her up. Maureen then goes into a psychotic state, and spends the next year in bed. Loretta takes care of her, and later Maureen says she has very little recollection of that year.
Jules meanwhile, meets and falls in love with Nadine, a rich girl. They leave Detroit and travel to Texas. Jules gets sick, and Nadine leaves him. He eventually comes back to Detroit. Maureen is getting herself back together, attending college. It is here when she meets the author, and tells her history. She is desperate to get married, and has her sights set on one of her teachers at school, a happily married man with three kids. It isn’t clear if they do end up together.
Nadine and Jules happen to meet at a restaurant, and take up with each other again. They spend a romantic and passionate afternoon together, take a walk, and Nadine pulls out a gun and shoots Jules in the chest, then shoots herself. Jules doesn’t die, however, but after this he seems to have cracked, more violent towards women, his life without purpose.
The book ends with the riots in Detroit, and Jules becomes involved with a group with Communistic insinuations, moves to California. Maureen has left the family, married and pregnant, probably to the teacher, it doesn’t say. Loretta is displaced by the riots, staying in a shelter, and sees Jules on TV, and cries because she thinks he’s turned into a murderer.
Review: I think Oates is a wonderful prolific writer, but this book was depressing. It was repetitive and hammered in certain scenes, but yet skipped over years and introduced characters that had no substance. The behavior is never understood. The reality of the situation creeps up on its members little by little, until years later one descendent seems to know every secret, and exhibits the same tendencies as previous generations, without their mistakes ever being discussed in the open. Families are a very complex affair, and Oates understands that implicitly. Jules character is the most complex. He is both good and bad, evil and sensitive, knowing and absolutely clueless. Oates makes the point that he is not just a product of his times, but of his family, of all the things that have happened before him that he knows or doesn't know. From the beginning of the story, the characters never resolve their actions, Brock comes back after 30 years, after killing Loretta’s boyfriend, no clue to why he did it. It becomes confusing for the reader.
Opening Line: “One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.”
Closing Line: “He took his sister’s hand and kissed it and said good-by, making an ironic, affectionate bow over her with his head: it was the Jules she had always loved, and now she loved him for going away, saying good-by, leaving her forever.”
Quotes: “Sometimes when she was alone, walking along the street, she was taken by surprise seeing her reflection in a store window, a remote, ghostly reflection she never quite expected or recognized; it did not really seem herself.”
“Literature gives form to life.”
Rating: Good but depressing.

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