Some of our best artists seem blessed with a type of clairvoyance, or at least a deep understanding of the zeitgeist that feels like clairvoyance. This seems especially true of Joyce Carol Oates, who’s taken our peculiarly American darkness as her subject matter throughout her career. In her latest, A Book of American Martyrs, Oates is at her most incisive, wrenching and timely.
When extremist Luther Dunphy murders OB/GYN Augustus Voorhees and his driver, it’s clear that the two are American martyrs—but they are only ground zero. Their martyrdom spreads out in circles, like hard radiation, to make collateral damage of wives, children, parents, siblings and innocent bystanders. Even Dunphy is a martyr of sorts. He goes quietly when the cops come for him; he doesn’t plead for his life when he faces the death penalty. But Oates understands that “martyr” doesn’t mean “saint.” Both men are unyielding in their beliefs: For the evangelical Christian Dunphy, abortion is murder; for the atheist Voorhees, a woman’s right to her body is inviolable.
Even as she anatomizes this latest American schism, Oates touches on her usual obsessions. We have the almost casual brutality with which men treat women. Parents fail in a million ways, but only mothers are not forgiven for it. Pregnancy and childbirth are, at best, biological tragedies. There’s boxing. Yet Oates finds a path to empathy, compassion and perhaps even reconciliation. Once again, Oates proves that she remains one of our most necessary authors.