At the end of the first book of Wonderland (1971), Joyce Carol Oates’s fifth novel, Jesse, the young protagonist, is found gorging food—four full Chinese dinners, handfuls of Hershey bars, six hamburgers with chile sauce, and three large orders of French fries. After he finishes it all off with a chocolate shake, he opens a letter left him by his stepfather. The letter tells him that he is no longer a member of the family that adopted him, that he is dead to the Pedersons. This situation—full of insatiable hunger (food as metaphor for both life and love) for sustenance, but ending in rejection—nicely epitomizes the pervasive theme of Joyce Carol Oates’s new work, Son of the Morning. The long novel traces, not the desires of the flesh, as so many of her other works do, but the desires of the soul for union with God, the One. This spiritual lust for transcendence ends, as above, in betrayal and in isolation not only from the One but from all of humanity. While chronicling the journey of the central character in his spiritual quest, Oates also informs us of the current world of evangelical religion: its hungry adherents and its predatory leaders.
The central character, Nathan William Vickery, is not a typical Oatesian creation, one of those rather undifferentiated figures of her mythical Eden River Valley stories and novels, the most recent being Childwold (1976). Nathan stands apart, as a character in both Oates’s fiction and from all other persons in the novel itself. In one sense, he is one of her most comprehensible figures, partly because his major fault is such a familiar one in literature—that of pride, of such a desire for unity with God that he willingly betrays the blut Bruderschaft, the blood brotherhood of man. He is also more easily knowable because his image fits into a topical scene: that of the television and tent evangelists; of the Southern revivalist preachers in their many colored sportcoats and their incantatory Geee-Sus; of the scenes of tens of thousands of teary souls being saved in football stadiums and fairgrounds; of slick image makers such as Bill Bright, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, and Pat Robertson—all working to make the born-again experience, as one current news magazine calls it, a “national state of mind.” But all of this only places Nathan Vickery in a segment, albeit a large one, of the contemporary milieu; it does not begin to trace his uniqueness. Oates begins with a stereotypical image but then injects it with such realism that the reader comes to know the consciousness of an evangelical, his dark night of the soul, the wrenching agony of being blasted by visions and the utter nothingness of a life with no vision.
In the first book of the novel, entitled “The Incarnation,” Oates establishes the earthly context for the early years of Nathan Vickery—not just the lay of the land of Marsena, Mt. Ayr, the lush farmland of the Vickerys and Sayers, but also the Vickery family itself: Thaddeus Vickery, the medical doctor in Marsena; his wife Opal; their daughter Elsa; and their son Aston. The narrative begins with a description of Aston, a young, rather brutish man, and his destruction of a pack of runaway dogs desperate for food. Here begins the central thematic concern of the novel: the urge of life is always toward life, but nature and man seem never satisfied. The feral hunger remains; ubiquitous desire rules our lives, makes us vulnerable, but ultimately makes us human. But, here, Aston plays God—dominating the dogs, shooting them one by one and then cutting an ear off of each for trophies. Into this vast drama of human need, of blood and lust and soil, is born Nathan William Vickery, the product of the violent rape of fifteen-year-old Elsa Vickery by a gang of ruffians. The rape scene is well written, as most of Oates’s violent scenes are, their very palpability and concreteness fused with the horror of the commonplace and the eeriness of human animal passion—an ironical beginning for one who will disown and mutilate his own flesh and totally repress all human passion.
This central tension—between the desires of the flesh and those of the spirit—is reinforced by other conflicts. Set against Nathan are the nonbelievers: practical evangelists, conventional ministers and preachers, professors, and men of scientific rationalism, who perceive the world in terms of the physical senses and practical realities, not in terms of the preeminence of the spirit. These conflicts, used to help unify the novel, begin with Nathan’s confrontation with his grandfather.
Thaddeus Vickery, the reasonable, sane doctor of Marsena, accepts Nathan as a grandfather would, as someone to care for and guide. An intelligent man trying to cope with the realities of his patients’ broken bones, gout, spare pocketbooks, and his own property taxes, Thaddeus lives the life of quiet desperation common to middle-aged Americans: worrying about children whose lives do not turn out as their parents intend; struggling with an overly demanding job and with the pressures of creating a new relationship with a mate. What sustains him is a vision of the world and the satisfaction of being an important man in the community, both of which are shaken first by Nathan’s birth and then by the boy’s religiosity. Embarrassed by Elsa’s rape, stunned by the improbability of her becoming pregnant, and frustrated by the refusal of his colleagues to perform an abortion, Thaddeus resigns himself to the fact of the baby’s existence; but not before alienating his wife and daughter by his wanting the unborn fetus to be destroyed. Opal, her own fate long resigned to the heavens, now seems to come to life. She now has a purpose, one...
(The entire section is 2344 words.)