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Broke Heart Blues Hardcover – July 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

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)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 369 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult; First Edition edition (July 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525944516
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525944515
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 1.3 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #925,036 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of more than 70 books, including novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, and criticism, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde. Among her many honors are the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the National Book Award. Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I have the distinct advantage of not having read any other Oates works, and so Broke Heart Blues writes on a tabula rosa. I thought it allegorical, not "a stretch" like others. I found it wholly engaging, not "tedious" as some did. And far from trivial, I found it profound.
The book parlays the contrast between female adolescent male hero-worship and middle-aged female angst into a wonderfully insightful and moving story. Oates evokes both the harmony and the discord of each of these life stages; one hears the cacaphony of emotions as they play out in each. She paints the tragedy (as well as the inevitability) of the co-existence of adult yearnings in teenagers and adolescent yearnings in adults. The mix is equally problematic, and often disasterous, for the members of each group. While devoting few words to sex per se, the book is mostly concerned with about precisely that, and its continuing power over the emotions, and often the actions, of young girls and boys, middle-aged parents, and even children and old men. Trouble is greatest when a character acts on chronologically out-of-synch emotions.
At the center is the child-adult Heart, who grows into the adult-child Heart, and is thus is nearly always out of synch. He serves (literally and figuritively) as the lightening rod for the women characters' emotional and physical cravings in both adsolence and adulthood. He also functions as the focal point for the fanatsies (including the heterosexual ones) of the male characters. They lust after their female peers vicariously, deeply envious of their dream girls' devotion to the mythology of Heart.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
In "Broke Heart Blues" Joyce Carol Oates once again proves she is one of the great stylists of American literature. Like "Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang" this novel is a meditation on american life at a specific time. The novel takes us through the 1950's to the present (though years are never named), focusing on a group of upper-middleclass suburbanites as they are reflected through their obsession with the novel's anti-hero, Johnny Reddy Heart. Through the eyes of the townspeople who surround him, Heart seems to be a James Dean-like rebel. Oates uses this set up to reveal the shortcomings of America's intoxication and obsession with fame. It works; it is not so much for the story of Heart that we read the first half of the novel, but for the fasinating portrait of contemporary american life revealed as we swim through the obsessions of the various teenagers, housewives, teachers and businessmen who construct what becomes the myth of Johnny Reddy Heart. The second half of the novel reveals the objective (dare I say "true"? in Oates' post-modern world true is a risky word) story of John Heart after his involvement in a fame and myth-making murder trial. We slowly find out what happened--as opposed to the whimsical, subjective impressions given in the first part of the novel. Gaps are filled in, and filled in in marvelous, fluid, at times perfect prose. This is a great read. It delivers almost everything Oates is know for at one point or another--compelling narrative, stylistic grace, lurid violence, sex, strong themes and brutal honesty. This is not the best Oates, but to say a book is not the best Oates is a compliment most writers would kill for. Highly recommended for all Oates fans and for the general reader of both "serious" and "popular" contemporary fiction.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Janet Beal on May 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
I've enjoyed all of the books that I've read by author Joyce Carol Oates, except this one. She has portrayed the angst of adolescence so beautifully in previous novels. What happened?
Oates introduces the reader to fascinating people: mysterious John Reddy Heart, his luminescent mother and eccentric grandfather, but fails to flesh-out the characters, to establish deep family ties. Curiously, Heart's little brother becomes a computer industry tycoon and his pathetic little sister becomes a "famous" nun. If they had grown up to be less prominent citizens would that have diminished the plot?
The sensuality of being "young and restless" was ever-present as was the loss of that vitality 30 years later at the high-school reunion. In spite of the fact that the story was episodic, disjointed, I couldn't help but wonder what was the allure of John Reddy Heart (more saint than sinner). Alas, if only the story had been told from the "heart."
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By "bmb145" on July 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
why Joyce Carol Oates devoted hundreds of pages to describing John Reddy Hart's high school comrades I just don't understand. The only good part about this book was when she finally let us into John Reddy's life from his point of view. I never good a good sense of any of the characters, and i never even began to recognize who was who in the high school crowd. the book was repetative, boring, and the worst Oates book I have read to date. I loved We were The Mulvaneys, but this one left much to be desired.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
JCO is a phenomenal writer and I look forward to her books. I suppose that is why I was so disappointed in this book. I usually can not put her books down and yet I had to struggle to finish this without intermittent napping. The story line is cloying and not particularly believable. The writing style is great JCO stuff, but somehow it was not enough to make this stimulating. I see the larger themes she wants to touch upon, but boy is it a stretch here. Who are these characters and why do I fail to care? True enough many people are damaged by adolescent experiences (real and imagined) but this story just doesn't click. I found it repetitive and dull. Great effort, but also, for me, great disappointment. JCO writes so well that you just come to expect great things. I'll shelve this error and wait for another great success(like, We were the Mulvaney's)
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