(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...

(The entire section is 875 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992.

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