Monday, August 2, 2021


BREATHE (Ecco, 2021) is a major new novel by Joyce Carol Oates that once again plumbs the topic and tributaries of "marriage"--a theme familiar to even the most casual of Oates's reader. It concerns a husband and wife—Gerard and Michaela—who are temporarily living in New Mexico where Gerard is engaged at an academic institute. Michaela’s world tilts, as in an earthquake, when Gerard becomes suddenly and gravely ill, requiring around-the-clock vigil and triggering severe and at times terrifying emotions in Michaela.

The setting of New Mexico’s high desert is unfamiliar territory for Oates (most of her work is set in upstate New York, New Jersey, Detroit), but no less vividly evoked on the page than her usual settings. As always in Oatesworld, the location is inextricably tied to story; the jagged desert escarpments, the “breathless” high altitude, and a pantheon of Pueblo gods haunt the protagonist, Michaela, as she prays/wills her ailing husband’s convalescence.

It is not a spoiler to say that her husband, Gerard, succumbs to cancer and pneumonia, because the focus of the story is on Michaela. One could select from Oates’s vast oeuvre any number of stories/books where a spouse, often a woman but not always, tumbles into a chaotic, self-imposed or self-destructive delirium, at the marital or physical loss/separation of the other spouse. An example of a male protagonist that comes to mind is Jerome “Corky” Corcoran in WHAT I LIVED FOR (1994).

The image of a character jolted into a new and unfamiliar world echoes Oates’s lifetime fascination with Alice in THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, which she credits as one of her earliest influences. For example, Michaela is reminiscent of Ileana from an early Oates story “The Dead,” a takeoff on James Joyce’s story of the same name and collected in Oates’s MARRIAGES AND INFIDELTIES (1972)--a woman under totally different circumstances than Michaela in BREATHE but nonetheless caught in a psychological pressure cooker that leaves her somersaulting through hellacious, personal grief and loss and romance.

Michaela suffers through sustained interior torment in counterbalance to the rudimentary functions of widowhood she must undertake, from the disposition of cremains to the task of finishing Gerard’s last manuscript. Some of this territory is familiar to readers of Oates's searing memoir, A WIDOW'S STORY (2008), about her marriage to Raymond Smith and, especially, the aftermath of his (unexpected) death. If there is autobiography to be found in Gerard, though, it is not principally Smith but Charlie Gross, Oates's second husband and the renowned father of cognitive neuroscience. 

Oates renders Michaela’s confused sublimation into widowhood in the hallucinatory, dreamlike prose that has become a hallmark of her long career.  As in her story “The Dead,” Oates employs a number of devices in her narrative style that simulate the  protagonist's psychological unbalancing: shifts between second- and third-person points-of-view, the interrogative mood, elliptical and rhetorically repetitive prose, and so on. This style can be irritating to the reader (as is Oates’s obsessive employment of italicized prose), but it is ultimately effective in creating an indelible literary experience that is at once utterly original and frighteningly familiar.

FTC Disclosure: I received an electronic Advanced Reader's Copy of this novel from NetGalley.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Dakota Winters

THE DAKOTA WINTERS by Tom Barbash (Ecco, 2018) is a witty, dialogue-driven portrait of a family and celebrity in the liminal place and time of New York City in 1980-81. The Dakota of the title is not the wintry plains of the upper Midwest, but the New York landmark apartment building home to John Lennon and other notables.

The novel opens with Anton Winter, a 23-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer, returning to his family in New York to convalesce after suffering a bad bout of malaria in Gabon. There, he draws closer to his father, Buddy Winter—a famous talk show host (think Dick Cavett meets Stephen Colbert) whose on-air crackup has rendered him toxic to the showbiz industry.

How and if Buddy is able to return to showbiz with a new talk show, with Anton’s help, is the story that propels the narrative, and it’s an entertaining if melancholy ride. The contours of Buddy’s mental health, which seems to be perpetually fragile, partly inform the Buddy-Anton relationship and keep Anton attached to Buddy and his career perhaps longer than he should be.

There are plenty of moments of lightness and fun. We encounter many historical figures of the day, including Johnny Carson and Joan Kennedy, and the guests on Buddy’s show like Peter O’Toole and Larry Holmes, but the most fully, fictionally developed real life historical figure is John Lennon.

Lennon is the most important secondary character of the book. As a resident of the Dakota, he’s a familiar neighbor and friend to the Winters. The friendship he develops with Anton is revealing and formative for both of them. Lennon’s boundless creativity not only seems to positions him for a major comeback, it serves as a model for Anton’s own ambitions that he has buried in favor of helping Buddy revive his career. From this angle, Barbash’s approach to John Lennon humanizes him without ruining the Beatles aura.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Dakota
While Barbash sometimes falters in using extended paragraphs of dialogue for exposition, he is mostly successful in offering a snappy and satisfying journey into the lives of celebrity, showbiz, and Manhattan at the dawn of the headiest decade of the twentieth century. Anton, an imminently likeable character, is not as fully fleshed as I would have preferred. While I believed his actions were realistic, even entertaining, I think a deeper portrait of his relationships with his love interests would have given us a better feeling of him as whole person—and not just the son of Buddy Winter (a role he doesn’t seek to outrun, but rather outgrow).

THE DAKOTA WINTERS is an enjoyable read. Sometimes melancholy, sometimes funny, it held my attention all the way through.