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.
(The entire section is 1769 words.)