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THE WILLIAMSVILLE THAT JOYCE CAROL OATES KNEW

Village people, there is a book out there among you, a novel that drips nostalgia while it chronicles high school life in a high-end suburb known as Willowsville, a "community of privilege" located 11 miles east of Buffalo.

Sound familiar?

Considering that "Broke Heart Blues" was written by Lockport native Joyce Carol Oates, who graduated from Williamsville South High School in 1956, the connection rings as clear as the horns sounded by chafed drivers locked in traffic on the village's Main Street.

"Certainly I had Williamsville in mind," Oates said during a recent phone interview in advance of her reading Friday at Canisius College. "There are some parallels, but it's not really about Williamsville. Things have been transmogrified."

Such as Island Park, which in the book becomes Tug Hill Park. And Erie Community College's North Campus, which mutates to Niagara Technological College. "All that open lands and woods," sighs one character. "It's the campus of some monstrosity."

Even the author makes a cameo appearance as the elusive Evangeline Fesnacht at the novel's coda, the 30th reunion of the class of whatever year. (Oates was intentionally vague about the exact decade in which the novel takes place.)

"Never once had this mysterious WHS classmate of ours, dubbed in our newsletters as our 'most renowned literary light,' attended a reunion, or even answered our queries," touted the reunion narrator, describing the arrival of Fesnacht.

There are references to the Buffalo Athletic Club, The Buffalo Evening News -- and when the novel's dark hero flees Willowsville after a murder -- to an escape route that takes him screaming past Lancaster, Batavia, LeRoy, Honeoye, Waterloo and Seneca Falls.

"Much of the novel is a gentle comedy about things that really happened in a very different way," Oates said. "I wanted to write about the very American phenomenon of nostalgia, about high school and how people are convinced that the most intense experiences in their lives often took place when they were adolescents."

The book could apply to any adolescent in any American high school. "Broke Heart Blues" (Dutton) is small-town America -- inspired by an intensity that defines adolescence, equaled
only perhaps by the desire to relive it.

"We wore cashmere sweaters. We wore white socks. We wore beautiful and expensive plaid and pleated skirts, which we got at the Tartan Shop," recalled Oates. "And crisp button-down shirts. I think we spent some time ironing."

A peek at Oates' high school yearbook reveals a young woman who -- in her own words -- "belonged to the college prep group, the good citizens who ran the school paper." Her interests included bowling, debate, literature and field hockey. She wrote for the literary magazine. She edited the school newspaper.

Now turn to the book's last pages to find a peculiar listing of "Senior Secrets" that details the weaknesses and suppressed desires of high school graduates more than 40 years ago -- including an entry for Joyce Oates.

Noted for: her book.

Weakness: "I just can't do it."

Suppressed desire: pass freshman health.

"Part of my memory in high school was really, really enjoying sports," said Oates, who lives with her husband in New Jersey, where she teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

It was a redistricting plan in the mid-'50s, according to Oates, that changed the landscape of suburban public education in the "north country," busing Lockport students to schools in Williamsville. For many, it became a lesson in behavior modification.

"People who came from the north country on buses were kind of strange," Oates recalled. "Some of them were farmers, and some were middle class, but in Williamsville it was a different world. My new friends and classmates just belonged to a different world, one whose parents had gone to college. Everyone's parents were married. The houses were very nice."

No matter how intimately you know a place, you have only to give it a few decades and watch the growing pains that mark progress. Take Transit Road, for example (if you dare).

"What once had been a village with open land going toward Transit Road on Main Street is now a nightmare," said Oates, who voices her concern through a returning Williamsville graduate, who in the novel loses his way to the reunion.

"Immediately on Transit Road I got lost. It's become a mega-highway like something in 'Road Warrior.' Why didn't one of you prepare me for Main Street! Where there was farmland, woods, there's wall-to-wall mini-malls, gas stations and car washes and McDonald's."

"Broke Heart Blues" is, of course, not the first time Oates has crafted fiction from memory. "You Must Remember This," for one, was published in 1986, and takes places in a fictitious city of Port Oriskany, an amalgam of Buffalo and Lockport.

"While writing the novel I had a map of Port Oriskany taped to my wall so that, dreamy as all novelists are, when not in the throes of acute anxiety or the fabled and so often elusive heat of composition, I could simply stare at it . . . ," Oates wrote.

"Broke Heart Blues," for all of its references to the angst and pains of adolescent suburbia, represents a message from author to the people of Western New York.

"Basically it's a valentine to the era and the feeling we had," she said. "The fantasy life of adolescence is so powerful, I guess we retain some of it, and it's good -- to a point."

Joyce Carol Oates will read from her work at 7 p.m. Friday in the Grupp Student Lounge at Canisius College. The reading is sponsored by Just Buffalo, Canisius College and the Butler Chair of the University at Buffalo English department.

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