Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi 'Broke Heart Blues'

By Mladen Baudrand

OCTOBER 4, 1999: 

Broke Heart Blues by Joyce Carol Oates (Dutton), hardcover, $24.95

In her 29th novel, Pulitzer prize nominee Joyce Carol Oates offers a timely and piercing view of American culture. Using a biting satirical wit, Oates descends upon the rotting corpse of an American cliché like a bird of prey tearing at flesh until only bones remain.

For a first course, Oates serves us a tale that we have all heard before: family of outsiders arrives in a tranquil small town and becomes the subject of wild conjecture by the local townspeople. The eldest teenage son of the family, physically mature and quietly aloof John Reddy Heart, is labeled a mysterious rebel without a cause. His every move becomes the subject of sexual fantasy for practically every girl and woman in town. Other boys envy him, while fathers condemn the young lad and forbid their daughters from seeing him. Following a murder for which the teenage boy stands trial, a media circus ensues.

Oates repeatedly pokes fun at this absurdly familiar anecdote by including wonderful morsels such as a feature in Life with the headline, "Teenage Violence Does Not Spare Upper Middle Class Buffalo Suburb: Murder, Drugs, Sex & Rock 'N' Roll in Willowsville, N.Y."

Having humorously picked clean the bones of this prized American tale in Part I of her novel, Oates then reveals to us a skeleton of the fanciful headline-grabbing story. She shows us in Part II a sparse and very real portrait of the accused teenage killer, John Reddy Heart, as a middle-aged man. We come to understand the circumstances of his life, his struggles to overcome his past and to build a future, the loneliness in his heart.

Similarly, Part III is a sobering glimpse of the thirtieth reunion of John Reddy Heart's high school class at which we view the outcomes of the lives of the teenagers who helped build the legend of John Reddy Heart.

By contrasting stark realism with fantastic satire, Joyce Carol Oates succeeds in pointing out that myths are made with one eye shut. A greater truth, she suggests, lies secretly in the hearts of men and women.

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