Sunday, January 29, 2017
A Book of American Martyrs : A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates
A special thank you to Edelweiss and Ecco for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
This was an incredible feat for both Joyce Carol Oates to write, and for me to finish. The book is a huge undertaking, both ambitious in length and subject matter, and it left me confused. I’m confused as to why it needed to be so long, and confused at some of the characters (more on that later). What Oates does exceptionally well is write, but that doesn’t mean that the book needs to be as robust to showcase her talent. It would have been more effective if it was trimmed because she loses readers in the minor events that don’t propel the story forward.
The story opens with the reader inside the head of Luther Dunphy, a religious fanatic who thinks he is doing God’s work when he calls in late to work one day so that he can assassinate Dr. Gus Voorhees, an abortionist for the Broome County Women’s Center.
Oates segues into Dunphy’s back story outlining his motivations and ideologies. The story bogs out here, but push through it before you bottom out and abandon the book. In his younger days, Dunphy is every bit the monster he is when he kills Voorhees–he sexually assaulted women, and exhibited extremely violent behaviour– only this later version of him thinks he is safe under the cloak of religion. The reader also learns that he is father wrought with guilt over the death of a child, a husband who cannot fix his wife’s depression, and a hard worker that battles chronic pain to support his family. The sadness and destitute Luther feels seeks solace in the righting of a wrong; it isn’t murder, he is the ‘chosen one’.
In the later chapters, we see into Gus Voorhees’ life. He is equally as driven as Dunphy, convinced with rightness for his cause.
We come to know both men’s families: the liberal, well-educated Voorheeses juxtaposed against the devout, poor Dunphys. The families are left devastated in the wake of tragedy, forever changed, yet leading similar lives. Both wives pull away from their families, both sets of siblings experience a wedge of grief that drives them apart. Speaking of wives, I mentioned earlier that I was confused by some of the characters, and Jenna (Voorhees’ widow) is one of them. Why did she abandon her children? Why did she disappear from the hotel after scattering her husband’s ashes? Was this just deliberate of Oates to draw another parallel between the two families? I felt that this wasn’t behaviour that was driven by grief, it was just plain out of character and was just there to inflict more pain and tragedy on the Voorhees children.
The story shifts gears again and focuses on the men’s daughters: Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy. Naomi chronicles her dad’s life, fronted as a documentary, but really she is trying to make sense of the tragedy and how it has shaped who she is. Stemming from a vicious attack in school, Dawn becomes a professional boxer and this is how she exerts control of her life. The two meet when Naomi feigns interest in Dawn as the subject matter for a documentary about female boxers. This is where Oates shines–when she explores the complex relationships and facets of their lives, the last third of the book is the best part.