Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1769
Joyce Carol Oates has been taking X rays of American life for more than three decades, and her novels and stories not only tell readers what is wrong with American culture but also provide a healing prescription for its recovery. Broke Heart Blues follows that formula in a story that is unevenly comic and tragic.
The story opens with John Reddy Heart driving into Willowsville, New York, a sleepy Buffalo suburb with a population of 5,640. By the thirtieth reunion of his high school class in the 1990’s, all the residents have been changed forever by his life. When John Reddy arrives, driving his family in their Cadillac Bel Air with a U-Haul attached, he is stopped by the local policeman, because, in spite of his aviator sunglasses, he is eleven years old. That is only the first unusual thing about him. As the story slowly unfolds, readers learn that the Hearts have arrived in Willowsville because John Reddy’s voluptuous mother, Dahlia, has inherited the stately home of Colonel Edgihoffer, the rich widower who expired in her arms in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dahlia, her father, Aaron Leander Heart, John Reddy, and his sister and brother, Shirleen and Farley, came to Las Vegas after the father, a test pilot, was killed above Lubbock, Texas. The sudden good fortune in Las Vegas transforms their impoverished lives, as their arrival will transform the residents of Willowsville even more profoundly.
The novel is divided into three books, the first and last of which are narrated by John Reddy’s classmates, who speak in a collective, alternately male and female, first-person voice about their mysterious classmate. Much of what they tell readers is gossip, because the Hearts are rarely shown from the inside and usually from the perspective of their neighbors. The central character is a handsome and romantic figure. All the girls want to be romantically linked to him, and all the boys compete to be his friends. His mother, unfortunately, leads a rather promiscuous life with various “business associates.” One cold March night, when John Reddy is sixteen, two of these rivals for Dahlia’s favors meet in her home and fight. The winner later beats Dahlia in her bedroom and is then shot dead with the grandfather’s old pistol. It is unclear who killed the millionaire Mel Riggs, but John Reddy disappears into the woods, after throwing the gun with his fingerprints onto the ice of a frozen river, where it is later found. Captured some days later, he is beaten by the state police and then tried for Riggs’s murder. He was only protecting his mother, who actually killed her lover, but John Reddy sacrifices himself so that she will remain free. He is acquitted of murder by the jury but serves time anyway for lesser charges and then returns and graduates from Willowsville High School with his class.
Book 1, “Killer-Boy,” narrates this story in a kind of rushed teenage voice, complete with multiple sentence fragments and filled with rumor and legend: “Though John Reddy would be our first lover, our virginity would grow back.” What is certain is how much all of his classmates idolize John Reddy. The story of his life, his imprisonment, and his year after jail fill this first book.
Book 2, “Mr. Fix-it,” is a total shift. In a third- person narrative, John Reddy is shown twenty years later, living some miles away, in Iroquois Point, New York, on Lake Ontario, and working as a local carpenter. He is involved with a divorced schoolteacher and her two children but, caught in a painful custody battle, he is beaten by Nora Leavey’s former husband and then leaves when it is clear that it would be best for her family. At the end of this shorter middle book, he drives up to Shawmouth, New York, where his grandfather, who scavenged bottles through the first book, has built the folk art “Glass Ark” tourist attraction, which, upon his death, has passed to John Reddy. His family has scattered, with his rich and remarried mother living in Arizona; his sister, a nun who is famous for working with autistic children; and his brother, the millionaire founder of a software company. John Reddy is close to none of them, though he had stayed in touch with his grandfather. At the Glass Ark, he accidentally runs into Kate Olmsted, a classmate who urges him to attend their twentieth high school reunion.
Book 3, “Thirtieth Reunion,” opens ten years later, returns to the collective first-person plural narrative mode of book 1 and describes in detail all the activities of this reunion weekend for the young people of Willowsville, who are now adults in their late forties. The events are alternately hilarious and tragic. The deck of a home collapses under the weight of the celebrants, and many are injured. Later, another attendee, Dwayne Henson, the mayor of Willowsville, dies of a heart attack. In the midst of these disasters, people eat and drink, meet and greet, fall into relationships, find lost loves, and dream and reminisce about their adolescence. John Reddy is still at the center of their lives, and stories and rumors about him abound. By the end of this book, it is even believed that he came to the reunion but left when no one answered his knock. The novel concludes as the reunion ends with talk of the next, thirty-fifth reunion. “We loved seeing those of you who came but we missed those of you who stayed away and as always we couldn’t help but wonder where were you? . . . we miss you, we’re thinking of you, we want to see you again, we love you.”
This third book is almost a separate novella, a sixty-plus page satire on growing old in America that reveals how American adolescents can never grow up, no matter how much they age. Oates humorously exposes the class conflicts, the antagonisms between these children and their parents, and the sexual drives of a generation of Americans who came of age in the 1960’s. This third book, however much a brilliant tour de force, nearly destroys the momentum Oates has been building in the first two books of the novel.
In the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Updike (“a fellow time traveler” to whom the novel is dedicated), and other historical romance writers, Oates has created an allegory of good and evil in modern America. John Reddy is clearly a Christ figure, and the novel is steeped in religious symbolism. No one knows his father. His mother alludes to John Reddy as a “Messiah” and is described herself as “an angel” who dresses in nothing but white. John Reddy appears to his classmates “[l]ike Jesus was speaking to me,” and they have visions of him “impaled” on “a wooden cross.” He feeds animals like a modern Saint Francis of Assisi and refuses to fight back when he is attacked. As Olmsted remembers at the reunion saying to him years before: “Our lives are in a perpetual state of grace. We are no more lepers than Jesus Christ was a leper—or, if we’re lepers, so was Jesus Christ. Youtaught me that, John Reddy.”
At the reunion, his classmates turn the suckling pig they eat into communion: “This is my body and this is my blood.” Even John Reddy’s grandfather building his Glass Ark in Shawmouth has a role in this religious mystery: “The Lord has demanded a Glass Ark! Beside a Glass Lake! My mission must be fulfilled.” In this sense, the rumors and stories about John Reddy can be seen as the Heart gospels, different versions of what happened to John Reddy in his life and trial, garnished with gossip and myth.
As with any allegory or any work saturated with so much religious symbolism, the question must be, to what point? How is Oates using the allegory and to what purpose? John Reddy makes two major sacrifices in his life: He saves his mother from a murder trial in the first book, and, in the second, he walks away from Leavey’s family because they might be injured by his continued presence. Those hardly seem actions that need a Christ figure to fulfill them, however. Rather, Oates seems to use the religious symbolism in this novel to point out the general malaise and vacuity at the center of modern American life. If Christ returns to earth, Oates proposes, he comes not as a savior but as a James Dean or Marlon Brando lookalike, complete with ducktail haircut and who, in the end, is rejected by his own Willowsville classmates, who are too drunk and too loud to hear his knock. The one-for-one analogy to the life of Christ, in short, does not seem to make much sense. Rather, Oates is indicating, through her use of this figure, the poverty of American cultural life. “The Circle,” the original thirteen classmates who have traveled through the Willowsville schools to their thirtieth reunion, are snobbish and materialistic, famous and yet insecure. The television film on the murder of Riggs, “The Loves of the White Dahlia,” seems only a little more shallow than their lives. The popular song at the time of the murder, “The Ballad of John Reddy Heart,” which provides the epigraphs to the early chapters, is a poor imitation of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Even the title of the novel has this satirical play: The novel is not only a “blues” version of another song about broken hearts but also the tragedy of John Reddy himself, who has his own heart broken by a world indifferent to the meaning of his life.
In other recent novels, such as What I Lived For (1994) or We Were the Mulvaneys (1996), Oates has dealt seriously with modern American life, and she is at her best when she writes her psychological exposés of the foibles and failures of the American family, not when she returns to the gothic vein she inherited from Edgar Allan Poe. Only in shorter works, such as her justifiably famous short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” is she able to sustain the interest in the supernatural that pervades Broke Heart Blues and drags it in a different direction. The novel is finally splintered by its own structural and thematic contradictions.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (May 1, 1999): 1559.
The Boston Globe, August 1, 1999, p. D2.
The Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 1999, p. 20.
Library Journal 124 (May 15, 1999): 127.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 29, 1999, p. 2.
The New York Review of Books 46 (August 12, 1999): 22.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (August 8, 1999): 26.
Publishers Weekly 246 (May 17, 1999): 55.
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