Oates writes What I Lived For from the point of view of forty-two-year-old Corky Corcoran, a minor real estate tycoon with political ambitions and a lavish lifestyle that compensates for his roots in the Irish ghetto. If we are to see him as a hero for our time, we must be generous. He is "[t]oo restless to stay in one place for very long," having the "[m]etabolism of a God-damn monkey." Unlike Thoreau, who marched to a quietly measured drum, Corky marches to a heavy-metal rock band. Oates captures the quality of Corky's life perfectly in titles of chapters, such as '"He's Here Now, But He's Leaving,'" "Corky Commits a Felony," "Corky, Hungover at Home," "Corky Breaks Down," and "Corky Gears Up." Corky is a drunk, a sexual predator, a man who responds to his Irish Catholicism in a WASP America by obsessing about race and religion. He wonders if Jews believe in hell as he creates his own hellish torment. Beneath Corky's increasingly frenetic behavior and thought processes lurks the memory of his father, Tim Corcoran, murdered because he refused to pay kickbacks for his construction company and of his mother, Theresa, who dies institutionalized. In the course of his tortured weekend, Corky visits his Uncle Sean, learns through him that his father was not killed for hiring nonunion blacks, and sees in Sean the danger of his own alcoholism.
These family characters are never fully realized except in Corky's own mind. When Oates uses them and various...
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