American Appetites, like many Oates novels, is about the way in which violence can suddenly erupt and destroy the fragile fabric of seemingly harmonious lives. Ian and Glynnis McCullough are successful professionals whose lives epitomize the ethics and values of Hazelton-on-Hudson, an upscale haven for liberal-thinking intellectuals. Most of the characters in the novel are card-carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union, all dabble in the arts, all appreciate gourmet dinner parties where they drink expensive wines and become slightly inebriated, not drunk. They are complacent in their conviction that Hazelton-on-Hudson is “one of the civilized places of the world.” Oates is determined to demonstrate that it is not.
Oates’s irony in this novel is subtler and colder than in previous works. The structure of the novel itself, which follows Ian from paradise to paradise lost to paradise regained, mocks the pretensions of the inhabitants of Hazelton-on-Hudson. Moreover, Ian’s abstract, almost disembodied reaction to his own fate distances readers and inhibits sympathetic identification. The prologue to the novel is a brief paragraph subtitled “The Creation of the World,” in which Ian and Glynnis rather naively and presumptuously associate their young love and marriage with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Ian thinks of himself as a true connoisseur of art and nature. His thoughts constantly turn to Albrecht Durer’s woodcuts, Parmigianino’s landscapes, or Georgia O’Keeffe’s wildflowers as if to validate the aesthetic value of otherwise quite random musings. Both he and Glynnis pride themselves on the power of reason to control and determine their lives. Despite the warnings of her obstetrician during a very difficult labor, Glynnis had refused an anesthetic because, she said, “she wanted to be fully conscious, to be in control of what was happening and not controlled by it.”
In Oates’s world, such control and such hubris can only be bought at the price of repression. Early in the novel there are hints that the glass might one day shatter, that there is a disturbing reality behind the facade. Ian’s occasional impotence, his brooding moods, Glynnis’ affair with their close friend Denis Grinnell, their daughter Bianca’s provocative and inappropriate tribute the night of her father’s fiftieth birthday party—are all symptoms of a disorder Ian has never fully recognized despite his youthful angst and attempted suicide. Knowledge of a different, more destructive world must be brought to him by his own personal Eve, a young, attractive dancer whom Glynnis had taken up one season, then dropped. Sigrid Hunt cannot seem to control anything in her life and summons Ian to save her. Her affair with an eccentric and brilliant Egyptian is the antithesis of Ian’s relationship with his wife. Though he approaches Sigrid prepared to dispense the reasoned moderation of Hazelton-on-Hudson, he finds himself strangely excited by the irrationality of her life and the rage she expresses. Trapped in “a trance that was both erotic and rueful,” he fully intends to tell Glynnis about his visit and the $1,000 check he wrote to help Sigrid get an abortion, but for some inexplicable reason he never does. This silence will prove his undoing.
Veteran readers of Oates realize that something terrible is about to happen. “The end came swiftly and irrevocably. And surely without premeditation,” Oates writes forty pages later, ironically emphasizing the “surely.” During a drunken brawl between this happiest of married couples, Glynnis brandishes a steak knife, enraged by her mistaken belief that Ian has been having an affair with Sigrid. Demonically strong, she struggles with him; he shoves her away and she falls backward, shattering one of the plate-glass windows. In a daze partially caused by her cruelest blow, the confession of her infidelities, he hesitates a precious moment before telephoning the ambulance. Still, there is never any doubt about the depth and sincerity of his grief as he maintains an anxious vigil by her hospital bed. Ultimately, she dies and he is accused of her murder. Much of the rest of the novel focuses on the long months before the trial actually begins.
Ian’s lawyer, Nick Ottinger, at first believes that there will never be a trial; clearly, Glynnis’ death was an accident. The prosecutor, however, is a conservative Republican who sees an opportunity to please his constituents, who have always resented the lifestyle and presumed superiority of the McCulloughs and their friends. Ottinger does manage to keep getting the trial postponed and assumes that it will be easy to prove self-defense if only Ian will cooperate. Inexplicably, he refuses to do so; “he would not make of his wife whom he loved a drunken frenzied knife-wielding woman, to save his own skin,” he tells himself. But then Sigrid Hunt miraculously reappears and he, “in a transport of wonder,” decides that...
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