9780525944515 / 0525944516

Broke Heart Blues


Publisher:Dutton Adult



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About the book:

If our age's ascendant idol is celebrity, then Joyce Carol Oates' Broke Heart Blues--and such worship is as compelling as in any less secular era--is both an insight and an affront. Set primarily in an affluent Buffalo, New York, suburb in the mid- 1960s, the novel's charismatic core is high-school sensation John Reddy Heart, a local legend whose faultless, James Dean cool is so penetrating that it colours his peers' lives--even as his Christlike transfiguration removes him from their orbit. As always, Oates chronicling of her many characters is fairly astonishing in its scope, while the allegorical sheen of the book allows her to probe an often ambivalent fascination.

When the young John Reddy first arrives in town, he, as well as his beautiful and dissolute mother, becomes an object of instant awe. Handsome, dangerous and inscrutable, he transforms steadily into a virtual rumour, his every act loreworthy, his habits the stuff of endless speculation. "Though he enters you through the eyes, he's someone you feel," observes one classmate. While his allure is, initially, mostly physical--the boys want to emulate him, the girls want to lose their virginity to him--John Reddy eventually becomes transcendent: that someone like him exists is a challenge to the drab and predictable trajectories of his classmates' lives. When one of his mother's lovers is killed, and the evidence seemingly points to John Reddy himself, a feverish martyrdom ensues, a self-sacrifice that is, we discover, more tangled and exacting than his disciplelike peers can imagine.

Oates, admirably, takes many chances in Broke Heart Blues, not the least of which is a frequent use of the first-person plural(!) narrator. This device, while allowing both a broad and immediate view of the proceedings, often seems thickly undifferentiated, a means for emphasising the insular nature of rumour. John Reddy's identification with Christ (and the trinity he forms with his mother and grandfather) is a difficult manoeuvre as well, making him less a viable protagonist than a central cipher, an accretion of conjecture and myth. When, after a lengthy detour into the prosaic aftermath of John Reddy's high school career, we see his classmates at their 30-year reunion in Second Coming posture, longing for a John Reddy sighting, endurance of celebrity becomes not only plain but pathetic. The cult of personality may lead to redemption, but life, inevitably, is what transpires in the interval. --Ben Guterson

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