A waitress brought a platter of French fries to our table, and another bottle of ale. Daddy roused himself from his music-trance to offer some fries to me... He began to eat with his fingers... I was hungry. I was very hungry. But could not bring myself to eat the thick greasy-salty fries, reheated in a microwave oven behind the bar, doused with ketchup, the kind of food my mother was quick to perceive was likely to be leftovers from other meals, scraped off other customers' plates. (p. 94-95)Vividly disgusting, gross food impresses the reader with an atmosphere of dead-end hopelessness in Joyce Carol Oates's novel Little Bird of Heaven. At an earlier point in her life, the girl-narrator was about to eat a delicious-looking ice cream cone that her father had bought her, but "I discovered, horribly, that something was inside the tip of the cone: squirmy black weevils." (p. 61)
Oates writes about losers -- characters with no education, bad jobs, a miserable future, few pretensions, little self-respect. She doesn't uplift them with the nobility of poverty or some other high-falutin' authorly way to see them. Sometimes she uses kitchen metaphors to describe them. One character is "a switchblade among breadknives" (p. 158); another has "ice pick eyes" (p. 191)
According to the list in the front of Little Bird of Heaven (published in 2009) Oates has written around 40 novels. Around 35 novels ago, I got tired of all this. But I just tried again. I know how widely-acclaimed her work is, but I had the feeling I had reentered the same books that I put down all those years ago. But the details are indeed vivid, such as the slovenly, cowardly friend of the murder victim:
She reheated hot chocolate in a pan on the stove, and served it to us in heavy chipped mugs with red valentine hearts on them. The rim of my cup was just visibly stained with lipstick... There was a scummy film on the surface of the hot chocolate, but the hot chocolate was delicious. And stale chocolate chip cookies, eagerly dumped out of a package and onto the chipped-pebbles Formica tabletop, delicious too. (p. 118).This sordid novel of a murder and its terrible effect on innocent adolescents left me with nagging doubts about whether small-town America is really like this. How authentic are the atmosphere of small-town emptiness and futility, of adolescent longing, bullying, and desperation? The story seems too literary, too much like comparable memories and memoirs.
Greasy fries in a disreputable road house, an infested ice-cream cone, wheat flakes with nearly rancid milk (p. 303), scummy hot chocolate -- all reflect an emotional hell that the characters live in. Despite my reservations, the book seems haunting, the same way some of her early books left haunting details in my imagination.