"A Book of American Martyrs"
By Joyce Carol Oates
768 pages, $29.99
Joyce Carol Oates, fearless chronicler of our dark sides, takes on the murder of an abortion provider – and its endless ramifications -- in her latest blockbuster-sized novel, “A Book of American Martyrs.”
Shattering from start to finish, this is a 768-page discourse on abortion in America that perhaps couldn’t have been published at a more pivotal time. It is also so evenly informed, and balanced, that it presents no discernible point of view.
Instead, Oates brings us objectively into the worlds of the fictional Dunphy and Voorhees families as they deal with the aftermath of the death of Dr. Augustus Voorhees at the hand of one Luther Amos Dunphy, an Ohio roofer and carpenter who describes the “instant the trigger was being pulled, the barrels aimed at the abortion doctor at above the level of his chest, and the first barrel knocked Augustus Voorhees backward and tore into his lower jaw and throat in a way terrible to behold as if the Lord had dealt His wrath with a single smote of a great claw … .”
It is Nov. 2, 1999 – a year almost to the day after the actual murder of Amherst physician and abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian who is referred to more than once here – Dunphy calling Dr. Slepian’s killer, James Kopp, “a comrade in the Army of God” now confined to prison for life: “Many of us are praying for him, that he will not sink into despair.”
Thus, even as fiction, “A Book of American Martyrs” is grim going – but the writing is gripping and the subject is apt for Oates, an author consistently drawn to the deep, and the paradoxical. For the “martyrs” here come from opposite sides of a great divide -- Dr. “Gus” Voorhees, a “tireless crusader for women’s reproductive rights,” and Luther Dunphy, a man intent on protecting “the rights of the unborn.”
Each man is a husband – Voorhees to Jenna, an attorney; Dunphy to Edna Mae, a homemaker. Each is also a father – the physician with three young children, the roofer with four. With the first blast from Dunphy’s Mossberg shotgun (left to him by his grandfather) both families are rendered “collateral damage.”
(Another individual also dies here, Voorhees’ escort on that disastrous morning – Timothy Barron -- but, aside from Dunphy later disavowing his murder, Barron is seldom mentioned, the conflicting ideologies of Voorhees and Dunphy overshadowing his death, a fact that one of Barron’s daughters will speak of, bitterly, late in the book.)
From their initial whiplash response to the murders to the inevitable disintegration of their families, it is the Dunphy and Voorhees children who dominate here, particularly Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy, each 10 or 11 when she loses her father, suddenly, one morning.
“For the remainder of her life my mother will recall herself in those moments,” Naomi Voorhees tells us as she attempts “to reconstruct the scene. Envisioning the woman who imagines herself Gus Voorhees’s wife, annoyed with her husband, uncertain of her husband, rehearsing words with her (absent) husband while not knowing that she isn’t his wife any longer but his widow…”
Jenna herself remembers the day as beginning “a very long time ago as if on another planet. Ringing telephone in an empty house. Her first instinct had been the correct one: Do not answer. Beyond that now. Too late …”
Dawn Dunphy will recount how “Years later after Dawn’s father had been arrested and taken from them and no one in Muskegee Falls was talking of anything else than what Luther Dunphy had done in the driveway of the Broome County Women’s Center on an ordinary weekday morning Dawn would ask her mother again why Jesus let such things happen and Edna Mae would say that was why their father had acted as he had: to stop innocent babies from being killed. ‘There was no one else to act for Jesus. Only your father.’ ”
Response to the unspeakable is visceral and heartbreaking here, the human toll on the Dunphy and Voorhees families incalculable. Intellectual response is saved for the trials of Luther Dunphy (for there will be two). Donald Stockard, a defrocked priest, appears at one, as a witness for the defense:
“Homicide,” he testifies, “is ‘justifiable’ in defense of others.”
“Even in violation of the law?” asks the prosecution.
“That’s the secular law,” Stockard replies. “The law passed by the legislature of Ohio in the wake of Roe v. Wade of 1973. But there is a higher law. There is always a law higher than the secular.”
Yet, even Jenna, entering the courthouse -- aware that she is known as “the wife of a ‘baby killer’” and taking care to “avoid the prayer vigil protesters” -- thinks of “how Gus would feel: though the protesters were mistaken, they were well-intentioned.”
But Jenna is stunned when, at the first trial, she realizes “to her horror – It is Gus who is on trial. Not Luther Dunphy” -- that what the jury is “hearing, repeatedly, (is) that Luther Dunphy had acted as he had in order to ‘defend the defenseless.’ ”
Politics enters only occasionally – as in a conversation Jenna recalls having with Gus:
“Try to see this as a mission – that will have an end, in another five years perhaps…,” he says. “Five years! That is wholly unrealistic. The first thing Reagan said when he was inaugurated was, he intended to reverse Roe v. Wade…”
“But it didn’t happen. It won’t happen.”
“It certainly can! If the Republicans get a majority, if there is a Republican president…”
But, after the murders, conflicting ideologies matter little to the children of both Gus Voorhees and Luther Dunphy. They are fighting for their lives -- all of them objects of curiosity, taunted at their schools, while at the same time their mothers are morphing into people the children hardly know – Jenna a sudden activist, then recluse who will soon go her own way, leaving her children with grandparents; Edna Mae, always meek will become more so, her lassitude bolstered by pills till the day she unexpectedly snaps out of it and begins climbing out of her mire.
By then, the older children of both families are scattered and lost – Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy most of all. Oates allows both Gus Voorhees and Luther Dunphy to be just whom we would expect – while growing Naomi and Dawn into disparate and fascinating young women, Naomi a fledgling documentary filmmaker and Dawn (steel yourselves!) “D.D. Dunphy -- Hammer of Jesus,” a welterweight women’s boxing phenomenon.
This should not surprise us: Oates is a longtime boxing aficionado – and her depiction of “D.D. Dunphy” in the ring is both brilliant and devastating, words that also describe “A Book of American Martyrs.”
As a novel, I should qualify, this is an overlong book weighted down by extraneous characters. But, for followers of the Lockport-born Oates (and I have long been one), nothing she writes is too much. Nor is any subject taboo.
In “A Book of American Martyrs,” she considers abortion, one of the most incendiary issues of our times, without flinching or taking a side – and this, in itself, is a miracle.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.