Joyce Carol Oates takes the title of her twentieth—and perhaps most assured and impressive—novel from Stephen Crane’s poetry sequence, “The Black Riders and Other Lines,” wherein the narrator comes upon a creature in the desert who is consuming his own heart and likes it not because it is “good,” but precisely for its bitterness, and because it is his alone. There are many justifiably embittered hearts among Oates’s characters, and if the morally most aware among them hang on tenaciously to their bitterness, it is not from some senseless clinging to their own misery, but from a desire to remain in touch with feelings and passions that others either cannot comprehend or refuse to countenance.
Urban upstate New York from the mid-1950’s through the early 1960’s—the years of the Civil Rights movement, the ascendency of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—as Oates depicts it in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is a place where distinctions and exclusions based on class and gender and especially on race are rigidly enforced. Oates’s novel is filled with incidents of racial prejudice, some only reported, many brutal and violent:
Blacks relegated to the backs of buses; the courts depriving a woman of her children when she marries a mulatto; a bigoted mayor preaching the supremacy of whites as the foundation of the republic; white police murdering or intimidating blacks, and white military officers physically disabling black inductees; white doctors providing inadequate care to blacks; teachers seating schoolchildren by race, or covering over hatred for all blacks by selective preference for some few.
Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is a novel of crime and expiation, almost Dostoevskian in its reach. It opens strikingly, with the discovery of the body of Little Red Garlock, killed the night before in a fight with Jinx Fairchild. From a poor family—even the blacks regard them as “white trash”—Little Red, himself physically abused by his drunken father, is a spiteful and dirty-mouthed bully who glories in the humiliation of others. One of the victims whom he chooses to torment is fourteen-year-old Iris Courtney, first taunting her, then throwing gravel at her face, and finally insinuating a sexual relationship between her and Jinx, a black high school basketball star. Jinx, who responds instinctively and almost unaccountably to Little Red’s treatment of Iris, kills him, taking another life to protect a white girl he barely knows. How Jinx and Iris live with the dark secret that they share—justifiably fearful that no one would believe the truth of their Story even if it were told—and also with their muddled and ambiguous feelings about each other, becomes the center of Oates’s absorbing story.
Jinx, a good student and standout athlete, is, indeed, the fair child of his family (his only brother, “Sugar Baby,” will die ignominiously late in the book, brutalized by henchmen for a disgruntled drug dealer). His father, Woodrow, disabled in a racial incident while in the armed services, more recently could not break out of his “paralyzing shyness” to speak up and defend himself when unjustly suspected of sexual molestation. So it remains for Minnie, Jinx’s mother, to keep the working- class family going financially. Not one to tolerate “crybabying” about the color of one’s skin, she believes that Dr. King’s well-intentioned efforts have only worsened tensions. After the white doctor for whom she has worked dies, though, and she becomes a domestic for employers who cannot see beyond the color of her skin, she begins to experience the hopelessness of insulating her family from racial prejudice merely by trying to act as little different from whites as possible.
To Minnie’s way of thinking, even her prized son’s nickname is too “black,” yet his other nickname, “Iceman,” might seem even more unenviable, prescient as it is of the moment when his murdering hands seemed to be acting independently of himself, altering his future. A believer in “conscience” if not in any clearly defined God, Jinx waits—despite Iris’ insistence that he had no choice and that she is the responsible one—for his punishment. Iris correctly perceives that he at least unconsciously inflicts that punishment on himself when, in the state championship game, he brings his dream of a career in basketball to an abrupt end when he comes down wrong and shatters an ankle.
Yet Jinx justifiably ponders whether, even if he were to fulfill his dream of athletic success, it would not be just another form of enslavement to the white majority. Would not a basketball scholarship offer merely one more road to degrading himself as a “performing monkey” and becoming like a white boy? Without basketball, he would be just another “nigger boy” in white eyes. When Iris’ uncle Leslie gives him a photograph he will come to treasure of black soldiers in the Union Army, Jinx is taken with their evident “composure” in the face of death; at the same time, nevertheless, it causes him to reflect on the way that soldiers throughout the history of the United States have been “exploited by the Man.” In spite of this—and perhaps as a continued expiation—Jinx, locked into a marriage that deteriorates into an increasingly abusive relationship, enlists to go off and fight in Vietnam: Uncle Sam pointing a finger and wanting him for something is better than being nothing. Sports and war, the pattern of Jinx Fairchild’s life clearly indicates, remain the only two avenues of possibility for black men who do not choose a life of crime.
A long while after the death of Little Red, Jinx and Iris have a meeting in which he comforts her physically (but without the sexual consummation he knows is neither possible nor desirable); Iris, however, will continue to believe that no other couple could ever be as “close” to each other as they are, and that he will always be the “only real thing in her life.” Even when she finally becomes engaged, her fiance’s presence only confirms Jinx’s “absence.” Much, in fact, of what Iris does in the years following Garlock’s death is motivated by the need not to let go of the secret knowledge she and Jinx share between them, for it helps counter her vague sense of insubstantiality, of “not-thereness.” The daughter of a fun- loving couple—by avocation ballroom dancers in the style of Vernon and Irene Castle—desperately in need of “good times” and increasingly beleaguered as the story...
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