BROKE HEART BLUES
By Joyce Carol Oates
369 pages, $24.95
Joyce Carol Oates dedicates "Broke Heart Blues" to John Updike. Her Willowsville (Williamsville) High School alumni narrators, rallying for their 30th reunion, are Updikean characters, village people.
Remember this as you read "Broke Heart Blues": The novel is a mockery of Williamsville.
Old Williamsville, Old Buffalo, probably all of Old Erie County, will no doubt catch every pitched reference to actual people in the novel. Oates is a Lockport girl, a Western New Yorker, though she lives in New Jersey, where she is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. Local people will truly grasp the novel's local knowledge and local feeling. They'll understand the novel as a Lockportian interpretation of dumb, prosperous Williamsville. They will see that Oates is still in the struggle, Lockport being one sector of meaning, Williamsville another.
I quickly found these Willowsville people loathsome -- too drippy, too gushing. I found the glorifying of John Reddy Heart too constant and finally tiring.
It is like reading Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" told by diverse members of Sandra Finchley's graduating Lycurgus High School class.
"Broke Heart Blues" also has a sensational murder with a youthful outsider as the accused murderer, a search in the Adirondacks and two highly dramatic trials.
John Reddy Heart doesn't speak in the Willowsville narrations. He's a James Dean who was, in turn, a John Garfield. He represents that kind of masculine beauty. His tough-guy mystique turned everyone on at Willowsville High School -- teachers, coaches, students. Willowsville girls -- our principal narrators, direct and indirect -- are still fixated on him.
John Reddy Heart has his own little plot in the novel. He lives on a broken-down farm near Oswego. He's a lone-wolf farmer and repairman. His sign says "Mr. FIX-IT." John Heart pretty much tells us what actually happened -- where the pistol was, who fired it. Very Greek, very tragic, this tale.
John Heart fixed it. He took the fall. He protected his mother. In his current actual life, John Heart is again in a life-and-death situation, menaced by the jealous separated husband of his friend and lover, Nola, mother of children whom he seeks to protect.
That great American guy is still there, just outside Oswego. He still has great laconic lines: "Just to prove something doesn't mean it's true." Even in high school, responding to a supercilious geometry teacher, John Reddy Heart has Clint Eastwood sentences, sentences that put the ball back in your court: "Go ahead, make my day."
"Broke Heart Blues," in this regard, is deeply reassuring. It gives us two truths to ponder. Willowsville can't sing the blues. That is one. The other is that the bluesy white heart of America, passed through the corruptions of Las Vegas and Williamsville, is still wonderfully in action and alive and well just outside Oswego.
Oates ends the novel with a Willowsville narrator writing her report of the 30th WHS class reunion. It will give you pause. It is a text in itself, separable from the novel.
I have never gone to a high school class reunion. It must be all these things: a horror show of comparison and judgment, a pathos of discovery (people have had surgeries), a comic revelry.
Truth, truth, everywhere truth. Too much truth, I'd think.
"A time of joy, if a time of sorrow; a time of bittersweet laughter, and a time of tears," writes the Rally Mistress, summing up the matter of the 35th WHS class reunion, resummoning the absent ones, the non-responders, the mysteries. She names them. The list is long and at the bottom of it is John Reddy Heart.
Read the names. Inside the comic figure of this sentimentalizing prose -- the prose of the high school reunion report unseen by the writer and unknown by the writer -- the names sound a dirge, the blues. " . . . Carol Banks, JoAnn Windle, Jack Schmidt, Gordie Stearns, Tommy Nordstrom, Jean Windnagel . . . "
Because, after all, there is still the matter of attendance. Someone is always marking it down. You were absent. " . . . Molly Eimer, Ray Kaiser, Rick Ludlow, Corky Castle, Charley Chriswell . . . "
Why didn't these people come to their 30th high school class reunion? What has happened to Ray Kaiser anyway?