Oates’ New Saga of Tragedy

A Book of American Martyrs

By Joyce Carol Oates

In Joyce Carol Oates’ powerful new novel, the murder of a doctor devoted to providing women control over their reproductive lives, and thus whole lives, by a man devoted to his interpretation of Jesus’ will and with an emotional need to expiate his own real or imagined sin revolving around the intended or accidental death of his Down daughter launch readers on an intense and wide reaching psychological exploration of devotion (religious and secular), family resiliency, the independent woman, the impact of sudden, violent loss on the lives of children, and the consolation of aggrieved daughters. In short, abortion serves as the ignition but is hardly the sole, or even most important, object of Oates’ pen.

In the early morning of November 2, 1999, Luther Dunphy, armed with a shotgun, confronts Dr. Gus Voorhees and his companion/bodyguard Tim Barron, retired military, in front of the Broome County Women’s Center in the town of Muskegee Falls, Ohio. He kills both men without a word. He then lays down his shotgun, prays, and awaits arrest by police, who arrive shortly after the event. From here on, Oates dives into the minds of the various characters, but none more so than Luther and Gus; Edna, Luther’s wife; D.D. (Dawn) his daughter and one of five; Jenna Matheson, Gus’ wife; Naomi, Gus’ Daughter; and Lena (Madelena), Gus’ mother, and more importantly in the novel, Naomi’s inspiring grandmother. The novel follows a linear course, from 1999 to 2012, covering Luther’s trials, his time in prison, the effect on Edna and his children, and the toll Gus’ murder takes his family, laced with frequent flashbacks.

Certainly many readers will focus on abortion, the radical religious right’s terroristic opposition, and the reasons women seek medical help, all of which Oates addresses. But, really, her concerns bound far beyond abortion and can be best understood through a comparison of the main characters.

Luther and Gus, you’ll discover, while at first apparently polar opposites, seem to meld into each other after you get to know them. Odd as that may sound, consider that both feature a passion, you might even call it obsession, for their opposing positions. Deep religious faith (as well what might be atonement for the death of his youngest child) drives Luther; unshakeable rationality motivates Gus (though he does prove to be quite a complex fellow). These things unite them, yes, but something else as well: both are perfectly willing to, and do, sacrifice their families to their beliefs. It’s not that they are indifferent to what will happen to their families, it’s that their missions take precedent over their families.

Edna and Jenna, no two women could be further apart on the spectrum of motherhood than they. As the drama begins, Edna’s already an emotional and physical wreck over the death of her youngest daughter, but also from the burden of keeping her family together. That she’s addicted to a variety of medications doesn’t help matters. She’s a woman without a path to anywhere, until the end years later. Jenna, on the other hand, has ambitions. She’s more than a wife and mother. She’s a lawyer. She writes. And because Gus travels to other clinics (and perhaps for other reasons, as Naomi discovers) so much, she and Naomi and Darren (the son), pretty much live their own lives. Then one day Jenna decides she can no longer be their mother and abruptly leaves them with friends and family. In the sense of taking care of family, Edna and Jenna are somewhat similar. What drives each, though, is as vastly different as their roots.

Lest you think Jenna’s behavior strange, you’ll find it runs in the family, as her mother Madelena did the same. It’s she who ultimately gives lost Naomi a home in New York City, where Naomi eventually finds direction in her life.

Which leads to the relationship of D.D., Luther’s daughter, and Naomi. These daughters are the most hurt people, perhaps the greatest of the American Martyrs of the title. They are angry. They are directionless for a long time. D.D.’s anger stems from her physical appearance, from the dysfunction of her family, from where and how she lives. Her salvation materializes as boxing, a sport that allows her to rise above the muck of her life, to fulfill herself, and, oddly, to praise Jesus. Naomi’s anger has more focus, directed at Luther and more fiercely at D.D. Nobody can fully understand how the two suffer in their own worlds than they. Ultimately, these women find resolution and consolation in each other’s arms. How they do so comprises a good deal of Oates’ American Martyrs.

Readers, especially those of Oates’ considerable oeuvre, will find A Book of American Martyrs among her best efforts. w/c

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