March 2005

A conflict of conscience

By Joyce Carol Oates
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What exactly happened that day after swim practice, when Darren Flynn accepted a ride home with Mr. Tracy, his English teacher? Did anything happen? Mr. Tracy had talked, in his “nervous, fluttery” manner, of the V-shape of swimmers’ bodies, of his desire for Darren to be less inhibited in class, of Darren’s close-knit family. He had asked Darren to call him Lowell. When he got home late, Darren had lied to his mother that he had been out with his friend Kevin. But did he have to lie? Was there anything to cover up? Afterward, Darren referred to “the thing” that had happened. But what exactly happened is the compelling mystery behind Joyce Carol Oates’ fast-paced novel Sexy. Her telegraphic prose style puts readers as close to the mind and thought process of a teenaged boy as a third-person narrative can. She creates an eerie, almost haunting, atmosphere of uneasiness and sexuality. There’s Darren’s sexy good looks, with his silvery blond hair and lithe swimmer’s body. There are the men at the swim meets who stare at him and take pictures, allusions to the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, and Darren’s father’s sex talk with him about the need to watch out for pedophiles. Add to all of this Darren’s curiosity about sex and the four-letter words that sprinkle his consciousness like so many flashy billboards. Oates has created a psychological page-turner for older young adults that explores perception, sexuality, peer culture and individual conscience. Darren’s friends plot revenge against Mr. Tracy for failing a team member. And what develops is a witch hunt, like something out of The Crucible, except now it’s not teenaged girls accusing supposed witches, but male athletes getting revenge on a teacher undermining their privileged status in the school. Eventually, tragedy strikes and Darren has a moral choice to make. Readers watch him follow his conscience and find his way. Fine young adult literature such as Sexy is an important vehicle for dramatizing stories about self and conscience in a group-minded world. Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.

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By Joyce Carol Oates
ISBN 9780060541491

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