The dominant character in Joyce Carol Oates’s MY HEART LAID BARE is Abraham Licht, a high-class confidence artist who assumes many aliases and disguises. Over the years he has two sons and three daughters by four different women and adopts a black orphan boy named Elijah. Abraham teaches them to regard all men as enemies and potential victims. The oldest children participate in schemes to bilk the public, including a bogus society, to claim $430 million as the estate of an illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Only one of Abraham’s offspring is vicious. Harwood murders a rich matron and lets his older brother Thurston go to prison for the crime. Later Harwood murders a young traveler, audaciously assuming the victim’s identity in order to inherit his fortune. Beautiful Millicent fakes pregnancy to frighten an upper-class family into buying her off.
Abraham reveals his latent bigotry by disowning Elijah, who has become Millicent’s lover and hopes to marry her. Disillusioned, Elijah becomes a militant crusader for Black Power. Thurston becomes a wealthy evangelist. Harwood is murdered. Millicent marries into wealth and status. The younger children avoid corruption: Darian blossoms into a musical genius; Esther becomes a nurse. Destroyed financially and psychologically by the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression, Abraham commits suicide.
Readers expecting Oates to lay her own heart bare will be disappointed here. Her provocative title refers to a projected memoir Abraham never completes. Her novel, based on intensive research, is sometimes melodramatic and overladen with historical trivia but genuinely interesting when describing the ingenious swindles.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, April 15, 1998, p. 1357.
Boston Globe. June 28, 1998, p. C3.
Chicago Tribune. August 2, 1998, XIV, p. 6.
Library Journal. CXXIII, May 15, 1998, p. 116.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 26, 1998, p. 2.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, July 5, 1998, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 20, 1998, p. 45.
San Francisco Chronicle. June 14, 1998, p. REV4.