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Looking for Joyce Carol Oates' Lockport

Would there be a Joyce Carol Oates if there were no Lockport?

She has asked the question of herself -- without answering it. Here's the most obvious answer: Yes, but she would be a different Joyce Carol Oates.

Oates was born in Lockport, grew up there and in nearby Millersport. Went to school there, ate lunches in downtown restaurants, attended movies in the Palace Theatre, hung out in the public library, walked the streets of the town. And when she was 18, she left, never to return except for short visits. And to write about it.

Niagara County, where Lockport is located, is Eden County in some of her novels and stories. Sometimes Eden County also seems to be Erie County. "We Were the Mulvaneys," a 1996 novel, is set in Eden County, in a small town something like Millersport. "You Must Remember This," a 1987 novel, is set in Port Oriskany, which feels like Lockport.

"I'll Take You There," a 2002 novel, is set in Strykersville, which feels like Millersport. (There's a Strykersville in Wyoming County, but Oates' town is eight or nine miles southwest of Port Oriskany, the wrong location and distance for the Wyoming County town.)

Some of the stories in the collection "The Museum of Dr. Moses" are set in the same areas. The list goes on. Oates has published more than 110 books -- novels, story collections, poetry, essays, children's books. Some, like "them," are set in the Detroit/Windsor area. "Blonde," based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, is set mostly in California. Maybe a quarter or a third of her fiction is set fully or partly in towns that seem to be based on Lockport.

She published an article in Smithsonian magazine in March 2010 about a trip she made there to give a talk in the Palace.

I walked around Lockport, drove around the area with a friend, looking for the places Oates recalled. Tried to find her there.

I've done the same thing in Hannibal, Mo., looking for a young Mark Twain; Oxford, Miss., looking for William Faulkner; Red Cloud, Neb., hoping to run into Willa Cather. Many writers are associated with place, especially places where they grew up.

That seems like it should be true of Oates, but now I'm not so sure.

We walked up and down the main street, part of which is called Main Avenue, part East Avenue, part West Avenue. We saw the Palace, which on the outside looks like most old-fashioned movie theaters built in the 1920s or '30s, or well into the '60s, before multiscreen theaters drove most of them out of business. It's where Oates saw dozens and dozens of movies, where, she says, she fell in love with movies.

Now it has been refurbished, and it has live musicals ("Hello Dolly" and "Legally Blonde, the Musical" are coming up). And speakers. Oates was invited back to Lockport to give a talk, her first invitation back other than from relatives, and she expected a crowd of 40 or 50 in the library, but instead spoke to more than 800 in the Palace.

And that's nice. It's nice that a beautiful old theater has been refurbished and saved. But it's not the Palace Theatre in which Oates watched so many movies.

Across the street is the Lockport Public Library. It's three times bigger, she says, than when she hung out there in the '40s and '50s. In addition to more space, it has something else it didn't have when she was a kid: 157 items come up when you type her name into the computer catalog. Some kids want to read every book in the library. Oates, perhaps, wanted to write every one.

We go to the adult fiction section and I count 72 books with Oates' name on the spine. There are other books by her, of course, in the nonfiction section, and the children's room. And DVDs of movies based on her novels.

A couple of blocks to the west we find a Walk of Fame. It has 48 blocks, each dedicated to someone from Lockport who became famous, more or less. There's one to Kim Alexis, a "supermodel." Another to William Miller, who was Barry Goldwater's vice presidential running mate in 1964. Goldwater lost, Miller disappeared. One to William Morgan, who invented volleyball. And one to Oates.

Directly south of downtown Lockport, eight miles away, is Millersport. It stretches out along Tonawanda Creek and consists mostly of modest, single-family homes. On Transit Road, the main drag, there's a house next to what looks like a former garage that is now a bookstore. Turn the Page is its name.

The man behind the counter notices my ball cap and says he, too, is a Vietnam veteran. We talk briefly about where and when, like veterans do.

Then my friend and I walk up and down the aisles. No Oates books in the adult fiction section. It's easy to know this because Turn the Page is far neater and more orderly than most used book stores. (I like the honesty of the phrase "used book"; these days houses and cars are "previously enjoyed." Give me a break, I want to say).

No Oates, either, in the children's section. Or with the nonfiction. I do find an anthology edited by Richard Ford that has one Oates story, "In the Sweeping Flood." The first sentence tells me it is set in Eden County.

We drive back to Lockport. Oates says that, to attend high school in Lockport, she waited on the side of the road in Millersport and took a Greyhound bus each day. Often for lunch, she says, she ate in a downtown restaurant, although she can't remember if her school had a cafeteria and why she didn't carry a lunch. But she doesn't name any of the restaurants.

We see a wine bar. Another bar is called the 21st Amendment (that's the one that repealed Prohibition). Neither looks old enough for Oates to have eaten there more than a half century ago. Or the right type of place. The pizza shops don't seem right, either.

We go into Tom's Diner. I have chili and ask for hot sauce. My friend has a Reuben sandwich. Tom's Diner clearly wasn't around when Oates ate in downtown Lockport, but Reubens and chili were, so, maybe, she ordered the same stuff.

Driving home, I rethink the question Oates asks at the end of her Smithsonian article, "Without Millersport and Lockport -- would there be 'Joyce Carol Oates?' "

She doesn't answer, but in the context of the article we know what she would answer. She is the product of a childhood environment.

Lockport and Millersport are nice towns to visit, with their shops and locks and museums, but I don't find Joyce Carol Oates there, because those towns -- the versions she grew up in -- no longer exist. Except in her novels and short stories. And that, of course, means they will exist as long as someone reads them.


If you go

Downtown Lockport is 30 miles northeast of downtown Buffalo. For many drivers, the easiest way to get there is to go east until you come to Transit Road (Route 78) and go north.