If our age's ascendant idol is celebrity, then Joyce Carol Oates's conceit in Broke Heart Blues
--that such worship is as compelling as in any less secular era--is both insight and affront. Set primarily in an affluent Buffalo, New York, suburb in the mid-'60s, the novel's charismatic core is high-school sensation John Reddy Heart, a local legend whose faultless, James Dean cool is so penetrating that it colors his peers' lives--even as his Christ-like transfiguration removes him from their orbit. As always, Oates's chronicling of her many characters is fairly astonishing in its scope, while the allegorical sheen of the book allows her to probe an often ambivalent fascination.
When the young John Reddy first arrives in town, he--as well as his beautiful and dissolute mother--becomes an object of instant awe. Handsome, dangerous, and inscrutable, he transforms steadily into a near-rumor, his every act lore-worthy, his habits the stuff of endless speculation. "Though he enters you through the eyes, he's someone you feel," observes one classmate. While his allure is, initially, mostly physical--the boys want to emulate him, the girls want to lose their virginity to him--John Reddy eventually becomes transcendent: that someone like him exists is a challenge to the drab and predictable trajectories of his classmates' lives. When one of his mother's lovers is killed, and the evidence seemingly points to John Reddy himself, a feverish martyrdom ensues, a self-sacrifice that is, we discover, more tangled and exacting than his disciple-like peers can imagine.
Oates, admirably, takes many chances in Broke Heart Blues, not the least of which is a frequent first-person plural narrator that, while allowing both a broad and immediate view of the proceedings, often seems thickly undifferentiated, a device for emphasizing the insular nature of rumor. John Reddy's identification with Christ (and the trinity he forms with his mother and grandfather) is a difficult maneuver as well, making him less a viable protagonist than a central cipher, an accretion of conjecture and myth. When, after a lengthy detour into the prosaic aftermath of John Reddy's high school career, we see his classmates at their 30-year reunion in Second Coming posture, longing for a John Reddy sighting, the endurance of celebrity becomes not only plain but pathetic. The cult of personality may lead to redemption, but life, inevitably, is what transpires in the interval. --Ben Guterson
From Publishers Weekly
Huge, humorous, manic and multi-layered, Oates's 29th novel will rank high among the best work she has produced in her prolific career. In 1967, John Reddy HeartAa 16-year-old, James Dean-like white-trash newcomer to a small town near Buffalo, N.Y.Akills his mother's abusive lover and goes on the run. Or did he? In the three days before he is apprehended, the teenager becomes a national obsession. Myths build as his trial approaches. "The Ballad of John Reddy Heart" soars to the top of the charts; every girl in high school is in love with him; every boy feels like his best friend. The students are the focus of the novel as a Greek chorus of their voices, a collective we, narrates. The story follows their lives to their 30th high school reunion, a seriocomic get-together from hell, where adolescent grudges resurface and former romances rekindle, and where the myth of John Reddy Heart still dominates everyone's life. An exquisitely evoked character, Evangeline Fesnacht, keeps bulging scrapbooks concerning John Reddy, and tells her classmates, "I am taking minutes on our lives whether you allow me to or not." She becomes E.S. Fesnacht, a novelist much admired but seldom read. (Perhaps Oates is satirizing herself: "E.S. Fesnacht has no existence apart from the spines of a few books.") Among the many themes Oates (We Were the Mulvaneys) explores, the similarity between celebrity and notoriety, fame and infamy, is the most trenchant and timely. Dedicated to John Updike, the novel is Updikian in its complexity, and Oates occasionally outdoes the master himself: "After high school in America, everything's posthumous"; "After the age of forty, d?j? vu is as good as it gets." Did John Reddy commit the murder? Or did he take the blame to protect a family memberAhis slatternly mother, his eccentric grandfather who builds an eerie glass ark, a dreamy little brother who becomes a mysterious Bill Gates-like billionaire, a semiautistic little sister who grows into a Mother Teresa clone? There is enough subtle and not so subtle Christ imagery to fuel academic rapture. Reading an Oates novel is like becoming a peeping tom, staring without guilt into the bright living rooms and dark hearts of America. (June)
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