(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The Tattooed Girl, Joyce Carol Oates’s thirty-first novel, explores the uncomfortable connection between violence and love and the nature of hatred and bigotry. Joshua Seigl is an eccentric, wealthy, rather reclusive man in Carmel Heights, an upper-class suburb of Rochester, New York. He is the only son of a European Jew and an American Gentile. As a young man, Joshua achieved fame and adulation for The Shadows, a stream-of-consciousness novel about the Holocaust, loosely based on his father’s stories of his grandparents’ experiences in the concentration camp at Dachau. In the decade since the book’s publication, Joshua has taught and lectured occasionally, started several writing projects, and dabbled at translating the classics.

Now thirty-eight years old, Joshua is becoming increasingly weak and unsteady. When he learns that his health problems are caused by an unusual degenerative condition, he reluctantly decides to hire an assistant. He expects the assistant to provide personal help and bring order to his disorganized files, help him catch up on years of unanswered mail, and catalog his work. He interviews several earnest, intellectual young men but finds a reason to reject each one.

Alma Busch is a blowsy, lower-class, inarticulate blonde, whose pale skin is marked by bizarre and sketchily drawn tattoos. She grew up in Akron County, Pennsylvania, in an emotionally and physically abusive family. Sexually promiscuous from her early teens, Alma tries to believe that the boys she has sex with like her, although they laugh at her and insult her. She also drinks heavily, uses drugs, and has been in trouble with the law.

Arriving in Carmel Heights with no money, Alma sits at an outdoor table at The Café, furtively eating food left by patrons who have gone. Dmitri, a waiter there, notices her and quickly realizes that she is a woman he can control. He seats her at a table in the back of the restaurant to wait until he can take her home with him. An abusive predator and a drug user, Dmitri is the type of man by whom Alma has been used in the past. She quickly becomes controlled by Dmitri, even agreeing to work as a prostitute to make money for him.

Although she is barely literate and cares nothing for books, she takes a job at a bookstore, angering Dmitri. There, Joshua, an avid reader and collector of rare books, meets Alma and, despite her obvious lack of education and breeding, offers her the job as his assistant and housekeeper. Although Joshua is sophisticated and urbane, he becomes enamored of and dependent on the slatternly Alma, ignoring his friends’ and relatives’ scorn. Against all evidence, Joshua ascribes to Alma attributes and aspirations that do not exist; he offers to pay for her education and seems oblivious to her complete disinterest in any intellectual pursuit.

Neither Joshua nor Dmitri is able to evoke from Alma the story of where and how she got the strange tattoos on her face, hands, and neck. Even Alma seems unsure of how she got them, who gave them to her, or why. The one on her face looks something like a butterfly but is so sketchy and vague that most people at first think it is a birthmark.

Joshua’s older sister, Jet, is as dramatic as Joshua is reticent. Named Mary Beth by their parents, she adopted the Hebrew name Jetimah when she was a teenager and changed her name legally to Jetimah Steadman-Seigl when she was twenty-one years old. Although Joshua’s book dealt with the Holocaust, and many people assumed he was Jewish, it is Jet who has appropriated their Jewish heritage. Having heard from another relative that Joshua is ill and must walk with a cane, Jet announces that she is coming from Florida to take care of him.

Joshua dreads his sister’s staying with him, but the visit starts off well. When she first sees Alma, Jet assumes she is the cleaning woman and dismisses her as an earthy peasant. When she learns that Alma also assists Joshua with his papers, Jet is incensed that her brother allows this barely literate woman to take on a task he denies to Jet. She predicts that Alma will soon be stealing from him and accuses her of being his whore. That night Jet confronts Alma, then begins hitting her. To Joshua’s amazement, Alma cowers and does not fight back, although she is larger and stronger than Jet. Jet then packs and leaves, not to be heard from again.

Joshua’s dependence on Alma deepens, but as Jet predicted, Alma begins stealing from him. Born to wealth, Joshua has no head for business, often leaving checks uncashed. Alma brings Dmitri things that Joshua is unlikely to miss, such as gold cuff links and an unused leather briefcase. She also tells Dmitri embarrassing anecdotes...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)