What I Lived For

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

What I Lived For is a gripping dissection of contemporary American politics and mores that reveals, among other lessons, how tight a hold the past has on the present and how difficult it is for anyone—whether an individual or a city—to escape its clutches.

Corky Corcoran appears, on most surfaces, to be the American success story. A fourth-generation Irish American, reared in Union City, an Irish Catholic enclave in upstate New York, Corky has become a millionaire in various business ventures; he is also a city councilman and a friend or acquaintance of some of the most power- ful and influential people in the city. While his life—including his failed marriage and his drinking—may look a little ragged at the edges, Corky is envied by most of the city’s residents as he drives around waving to people from his Cadillac De Ville. Yet appearances, as Joyce Carol Oates has told readers again and again in novels and stories, can be deceiving. Just beneath the surface of Corky, as of his city, are some terribly corrosive forces at work. Corky will spend Memorial Day weekend, 1992, finding out just how destructive those forces can be.

The weekend starts off well enough. Although stuck in a Friday traffic jam, which may make him late for his rendezvous with his mistress Christina, Corky is best in emergencies; soon he is out of the Cadillac rerouting traffic, then speeding to his appointment. It may be his last success. At Christina’s downtown studio, after they make love, Corky discovers that her husband knows about their relationship. Corky loses control, fights violently with Christina, and storms out, vowing never to see her again. Christina will haunt him for the rest of the novel.

Corky’s promises, even to himself, are usually built on sand. At lunch with Howard Greenbaum, his new financial consultant, Corky’s confidence is shaken by Greenbaum’s warnings about various Corcoran investments. As Corky drinks and eats to excess (his usual pattern), his worries mount. He ends the meeting assuring Greenbaum that he agrees with the adviser’s suggested changes in his financial life.

It is not only Corky that is going under, however, but his city as well: “Union City is in crisis. Rust Belt casualty.” Cosmetic changes will not help. It is not only economic problems, as Oates shows readers, but the moral underpinnings that are rotten. Corky has been making “arrangements” (kickbacks) in his business dealings for years; the Union City political machine—which does not usually include Corky in its inner circle—is equally corrupt. Now they all may be involved in murder.

Corky has gotten a distress call from his twenty-five-year-old stepdaughter, Thalia, on his message machine, where Corky most often communicates with people. When he cannot find her, he breaks into her apartment and discovers photographs of Thalia with his friend Congressman Vic Slattery and several other young women. The next day, Corky discovers that one of those women, Marilee Plummer, has killed herself. Was it really a suicide? Or was Marilee murdered by political forces in the city, such as the black councilman against whom she has brought rape and assault charges? Corky gets deeper into this murder mystery as the weekend proceeds and he searches for Thalia, who, he guesses, may be hiding from the people who killed Marilee.

The weekend becomes more and more frantic. Corky drinks more and swears to stop; promises to see people and misses his appointments; tries to buy a handgun (after Thalia has stolen his) at the Club Zanzibar, a black night spot; stops by the morgue where Marilee’s body lies and passes out; visits the Mt. Moriah Crematorium, where Marilee’s service will be held, and is interviewed on television; visits his former wife and manages to get drunk and make love to her. Corky is right about this weekend: More and more, “things are veering out of his control.” He is right when he “guesses some watershed’s been crossed. Some invisible boundary. He isn’t going to feel the same about himself as a man ever again.”

“All his life he’s been a guy in the wrong place and running late,” but that will end this weekend. He finally...

(The entire section is 1729 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Oates has an uncanny ability to get inside the heads of her characters even when she does not write from a first-person point of view. In...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

With its graphic sexuality and blunt language, What I Lived For will be embarrassing for some people. Discussion will want to address...

(The entire section is 228 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Besides Walden, What I Lived For draws on James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) as indicated by a quotation from this novel that Oates...

(The entire section is 124 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Oates frequently writes from a male perspective, but never so insistently as in What I Lived For as she records the thought processes...

(The entire section is 1193 words.)