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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Assassins: A Book of Hours is perhaps Oates’s darkest and most pessimistic novel. It takes its subtitle from a canonical book that ends with the Office of the Dead, and it is concerned with characters mourning or obsessed with death.

The four characters central to the novel are Andrew Petrie, a former senator from New York and outspoken political observer; his brothers Hugh and Stephen; and his widow, Yvonne. Andrew himself is dead and appears only through memory or flashback; Hugh, Yvonne, and Stephen provide the viewpoints for the three parts of the novel, which are accordingly named for them.

“Hugh” begins enigmatically, and only later does it become evident that his diffuse and convoluted first-person narrative takes place within his conscious mind as he lies inexpressive and paralyzed in a hospital bed. Hugh is a bitter and sardonic political cartoonist who has devoted his life to hating and lampooning all that his successful older brother represents. His character—greedy, impotent, hypochondriac, alcoholic—is expressed through his obsessive rantings as he recounts his experience during the year following Andrew’s death. Without Andrew, Hugh’s life lacks the pivot on which it had turned. Consumed with a desire to discover his brother’s assassins and convinced that Yvonne holds the key, he embarks on a maniacal pursuit of her and ends up a professional and romantic failure—even failing in his dramatically staged but essentially comic attempt at suicide.

Yvonne, the object of Hugh’s deluded affections, is left completely isolated by her husband’s death. Assisting the police, she draws up a list of Andrew’s potential enemies, but the list is really an emblem of her own paranoia, for she views all others as her personal enemies and recedes further into her own private world. Having immersed herself completely in Andrew’s intellectual life and their marriage, she strives after his death to continue his work, but soon that also loses meaning. She engages in casual affairs with various men connected with Andrew, but she is both frigid and incapable of bringing her lovers pleasure. Part 2, “Yvonne,” ends with a violent scenario of Yvonne’s death at the hands of ax-wielding assassins.

“Stephen” focuses on the youngest Petrie brother, who experienced a religious awakening as a teenager, dissociated himself completely from his family and its wealth, and has been living in a religious retreat. His last meeting with Andrew was a fiery one, and Andrew’s death now challenges the peace Stephen has found by forcing him to acknowledge himself as a Petrie. In attending the funeral, in meeting with Hugh in New York and Yvonne in Albany, the firmness of his Jesuit foundation begins to disintegrate, and he finds himself deprived of his sense of God, and with it his sense of himself. He becomes an aimless and ever-accommodating drifter.

The three parts of the novel treat the same events, encounters, and revelations through three disparate perceptions; together they suggest an objective account of events and define the limitations of the individual personalities. The novel abounds in carefully wrought detail and corroboration, and it is populated with a world of other characters: the Petries’ father, a ruthless judge now in retirement; their sister Doris, a plump suburban busybody; their cousin Pamela, a superficial society woman; their cousin Harvey, Andrew’s cutthroat rival; Andrew’s sensuous first wife, Willa, and brilliant son Michael; Hugh’s psychoanalysts, Drs. Wynand and Swann; and the mysterious Raschke, a political activist from both Yvonne’s and Stephen’s pasts.

There is an element of mystery throughout The Assassins , for Hugh’s desire to locate Andrew’s assassins renders all the characters suspect and creates expectations that the murder will be solved at the end of the novel. The title and the mystery are misleading, however, for Oates’s “assassins” are the characters themselves,...

(The entire section is 987 words.)