Broke Heart Blues

( 3 )

Overview

In the heat of a languid July, fresh from Las Vegas, John Reddy Heart drives into the quiet upstate town of Willowsville, New York. Eleven years old, piloting a traffic-stopping, salmon-colored Cadillac, he arrives with his stunning mother beside him, his grandfather and younger siblings in the backseat. His mother is Dahlia Heart, a blackjack dealer of dubious reputation who always dresses in white. She has come to Willowsville to claim the rambling mansion left to her by one of her wealthy suitors. But it is ...
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Overview

In the heat of a languid July, fresh from Las Vegas, John Reddy Heart drives into the quiet upstate town of Willowsville, New York. Eleven years old, piloting a traffic-stopping, salmon-colored Cadillac, he arrives with his stunning mother beside him, his grandfather and younger siblings in the backseat. His mother is Dahlia Heart, a blackjack dealer of dubious reputation who always dresses in white. She has come to Willowsville to claim the rambling mansion left to her by one of her wealthy suitors. But it is John Reddy - already growing into a heartbreaking hybrid of James Dean, Brando, and Elvis - who will claim the town itself. It is John Reddy who will arouse the desire of Willowsville's teenage girls and the worship of its boys; the fear and envy of its men, and the yearning of its women. And it is John Reddy who will capture the town's soul forever on the night a prominent citizen is shot dead in Dahlia Heart's bedroom - and a statewide manhunt sweeps Willowsville's rebel outlaw into the realm of a living myth. Over the course of thirty years, from the sixties through the nineties, Broke Heart Blues charts the rise and fall - and ultimate call to reckoning - of John Reddy Heart, through the myriad voices of those who find in him their whipping boy, savior, dream lover, and confessor. At once a scathing indictment of the cult-like nature of fame and celebrity in America, and a meditation on human need and longing, it is a powerful and provocative achievement.
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Editorial Reviews

D.T. Max
...Dramatizes how wanting and memory compete.....how lonely, unhappy people mythologize their adolescence. (Larger cultural metaphors, as always in Oates's fiction, are invited)....Displays great inventiveness and a justified belief in its relevance to our own emotional lives. This is not a bashful or subtle book. It doesn't woo you so much as run you down....This is America, affluent, ever-adolescent America, land of ''teen-age litter,'' where, as Oates writes, ''after high school . . . everything's posthumous.''
The New York Times Book Review
Michelle Goldberg
Like much of Joyce Carol Oates' fiction, Broke Heart Blues centers on a single murky act of violence and its endlessly radiating repercussions. But while the plot, the upstate New York setting and the discontented characters are familiar from her 28 other novels, the tone of stifling, sickening sentimentality is not. Ordinarily Oates' greatest strength is her psychological acuity, and so it's tempting to believe that the book's cloyingly nostalgic atmosphere is meant to emphasize how pathetic and deluded her multiple narrators are. Unfortunately, there's little to indicate such wry distance, and even if there were, spending 384 pages in the heads of adults who believe that life ended in high school is a singularly claustrophobic experience.

Set in Willowsville, an insular, wealthy suburb of Buffalo, the book pivots around John Reddy Heart, a devastatingly cool and sexy boy-man who, at age 16, stands trial for murdering a prominent local businessman in his mother's bedroom. It's unclear whether he shot the man to protect his mother or he covered up for the real killer -- one of many ambiguities that will obsess Heart's classmates throughout their lives. These classmates narrate most of Broke Heart Blues, forming an amorphous chorus that stretches from their high school days through a reunion 30 years after graduation.

Each of the novel's chapters is told by a different person, though we never learn exactly who any of them are -- indeed, they're distinguished from each other only by a few pronouns. Instead of the shifting, "Rashomon"-style perspective one would expect from such a polyphonic device, the voices here are so uniform and they form such a consensus that it's almost as if Oates is trying to make a point about the town's stifling conformity. While she is usually adept at penetrating middle-class placidity to find the rawness and eccentricity of her characters' secret hearts, here she gives us a world in which, despite huge disparities in adolescent caste positions and grown-up lifestyles, everyone feels essentially the same way. Especially about John Reddy Heart, whom they worship into their adulthoods -- long after he's disappeared from their lives.

Thus the mystery that should propel the story -- what really happened that night in John's mother's bedroom? -- is lost beneath a collective emotional impairment. According to one of Heart's classmates -- Oates doesn't tell us which one, and it doesn't matter -- "After high school in America, everything's posthumous." That line, so patently absurd, is the animating idea in all these lives. The girls blossom into movie stars and prize-winning novelists, the boys grow up to be millionaires, computer geniuses and university presidents, but they all feel that they were their truest selves as teenagers, and we're expected to believe that not one of them outgrows the fixation with the sexy young rebel. The novel's third section, titled simply "Thirtieth Reunion," degenerates into a kind of Gothic "Big Chill" as all these middle-aged men and women sob, scream, copulate with old crushes and ponder John Reddy Heart endlessly.

Only the brief middle section offers a respite from the maudlin cacophony of the rest of the book. Here, Oates assumes the third person and tells the gripping story of Heart's tumultuous childhood and barely salvaged adulthood. Instead of the iconic figure of Willowsville lore, he emerges as a confused, reticent yet heroically loyal son forced to mature too soon, a boy too busy keeping his family together to notice his smitten peers.

In this section, Oates is on familiar ground. Her best works -- such novels as Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, Foxfire and You Must Remember This -- are stories of hungry outsiders, set in the terrain of lower-middle-class aspiration and desperation. The characters in these books would probably see the affluent suburbanites who populate Broke Heart Blues as a single, indistinct blob of smugness. Oates herself certainly seems to view them this way, and that's why instead of brimming with the acid poetry and cruel insights that usually enliven her fiction, this novel ends up as mired in banality as its cast of sad, stuck, middle-aged adolescents.
Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Huge, humorous, manic and multi-layered, Oates's 29th novel will rank high among the best work she has produced in her prolific career. In 1967, John Reddy Heart -- a 16-year-old, James Dean-like white-trash newcomer to a small town near Buffalo, N.Y. -- kills his mother's abusive lover and goes on the run. Or did he? In the three days before he is apprehended, the teenager becomes a national obsession. Myths build as his trial approaches. "The Ballad of John Reddy Heart" soars to the top of the charts; every girl in high school is in love with him; every boy feels like his best friend. The students are the focus of the novel as a Greek chorus of their voices, a collective we, narrates. The story follows their lives to their 30th high school reunion, a seriocomic get-together from hell, where adolescent grudges resurface and former romances rekindle, and where the myth of John Reddy Heart still dominates everyone's life. An exquisitely evoked character, Evangeline Fesnacht, keeps bulging scrapbooks concerning John Reddy, and tells her classmates, "I am taking minutes on our lives whether you allow me to or not." She becomes E.S. Fesnacht, a novelist much admired but seldom read. (Perhaps Oates is satirizing herself: "E.S. Fesnacht has no existence apart from the spines of a few books.") Among the many themes Oates (We Were the Mulvaneys) explores, the similarity between celebrity and notoriety, fame and infamy, is the most trenchant and timely. Dedicated to John Updike, the novel is Updikian in its complexity, and Oates occasionally outdoes the master himself: "After high school in America, everything's posthumous"; "After the age of forty, deja vu is as good as it gets." Did John Reddy commit the murder? Or did he take the blame to protect a family member -- his slatternly mother, his eccentric grandfather who builds an eerie glass ark, a dreamy little brother who becomes a mysterious Bill Gates-like billionaire, a semiautistic little sister who grows into a Mother Teresa clone? There is enough subtle and not so subtle Christ imagery to fuel academic rapture. Reading an Oates novel is like becoming a peeping tom, staring without guilt into the bright living rooms and dark hearts of America.
Library Journal
YA -- Oates gives over the first section of this three-part novel to a glacially paced telling of magnetically attractive John Reddy Heart's dramatic arrival in Willowsville, NY, from Las Vegas at age 11; the murder of which he was accused at 16; the excitement his runaway status engendered immediately following the crime; and his reinstatement in school after his year of penal service. Both boys and girls, athletes, social sophisticates, and intellectuals take turns in describing these unfolding events of the 1960s, but no distinct voices come to the fore. For those readers who have stuck with the book through this circular dissection of the moments leading up to and following the murder, the more rapid pace of the second part is a relief: Here, the now-adult John Heart deals with his present and looks back with coolness on his past. The facts of the murder are not what his former classmates know. In a brief part three, the novel catches up with those former classmates, at their 30th high school reunion, where the myth of John Reddy Heart still looms and adolescent mores still seem to prevail. Older teens who can assess the shallowness of their generational counterparts will find satisfaction in the first two thirds of this tale. The reunion, with its varied expressions of lingering adolescent angst and self-delusion, may depress young adults who look forward to reaching a developmental point beyond high school. This would make an interesting discussion book for both classroom and informal book groups.
D.T. Max
...[D]ramatizes how wanting and memory compete.....how lonely, unhappy people mythologize their adolescence. (Larger cultural metaphors, as always in Oates's fiction, are invited)....[D]isplays great inventiveness and a justified belief in its relevance to our own emotional lives. This is not a bashful or subtle book. It doesn't woo you so much as run you down....[T]his is America, affluent, ever-adolescent America, land of ''teen-age litter,'' where, as Oates writes, ''after high school . . . everything's posthumous.''
The New York Times Book Review
Lorrie Moore
Oates at her blazing best . . . The extraordinary and ordinary exchange fates, trade secrets, and locker combinations, for the fevered, hierarchical world of adolescence is Oates's great muse . . . Astonishing.
The New York Review of Books
Ron Charles
...[D]oes for high school reunions what Huckleberry Finn did for the Mississippi....[Its] dry satire of America's thirst for scandal is perfectly calibrated....This the sort of challenging, daringly original novel [Oates] has trained us to expect from her.
The Christian Science Monitor
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Superbly inventive, driven by a dynamo of nostalgic emotion . . . Broke Heart Blues more than maintains Oates's place as one of America's finest contemporary novelists.
Kirkus Reviews
The story of a handsome teenaged killer whose romantic notoriety reverberates for decades in the minds and hearts of his classmates and neighbors is the highly charged core of Oates's generously detailed twenty-ninth novel. In the late 1960s in the upstate New York town of Willowsville (a Buffalo suburb), 16-year-old John Reddy Heart—a charismatic, Brando-like loner—;shoots and kills his mother Dahlia's lover, a prominent local businessman; goes on trial for murder; and serves a brief prison term. Separate choruses of voices—those of the girls who adored him, and those of the boys who were his casual friends, teammates, and envious admirers—tell a patchwork tale of a self-possessed boy who came out of the West with his odd fragmented family, lived stoically and all but silently among the people he fascinated until the violent day that made him a local legend forever, and, after graduation day, disappeared without a trace. Then, halfway through the novel, Oates shifts to John Reddy's own viewpoint, telling the story of his life both before and after Willowsville, though without ever compromising the curious opacity of his character. Finally, the "voices" of Willowsville speak again, on the occasion of his high school class's thirtieth reunion; a celebration whose saturnalian excess is fuelled by others' heated memories of him, as well as the (quickly accepted) rumor that he attended that reunion secretly, then stole away again without speaking to anyone. Was John Reddy his mother's heroic defender or (as the details of his past suggest) only a disadvantaged kid caught in a spiral of accident that predetermined his fate? Is he, in fact, a distressingly ordinary soulonto whom others project their deepest dreams and fantasies? That ambiguity is dramatized in a mesmerizing portrayal of small-town America in extremis that speaks volumes about the way our imaginations create our own reality.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641717833
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 5/1/2000
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.93 (w) x 8.91 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates
In a prolific and varied oeuvre that ranges over essays, plays, criticism, and several genres of fiction, Joyce Carol Oates has proved herself one of the most influential and important storytellers in the literary world.

Biography

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most influential and important storytellers in the literary world. She has often used her supreme narrative skills to examine the dark side of middle-class Americana, and her oeuvre includes some of the finest examples of modern essays, plays, criticism, and fiction from a vast array of genres. She is still publishing with a speed and consistency of quality nearly unheard of in contemporary literature.

A born storyteller, Oates has been spinning yarns since she was a little girl too young to even write. Instead, she would communicate her stories through drawings and paintings. When she received her very first typewriter at the age of 14, her creative floodgates opened with a torrent. She says she wrote "novel after novel" throughout high school and college -- a prolificacy that has continued unabated throughout a professional career that began in 1963 with her first short story collection, By the North Gate.

Oates's breakthrough occurred in 1969 with the publication of them, a National Book Award winner that established her as a force to be reckoned with. Since that auspicious beginning, she has been nominated for nearly every major literary honor -- from the PEN/Faulkner Award to the Pulitzer Prize -- and her fiction turns up with regularity on The New York Times annual list of Notable Books.

On average Oates publishes at least one novel, essay anthology, or story collection a year (during the 1970s, she produced at the astonishing rate of two or three books a year!). And although her fiction often exposes the darker side of America's brightest facades – familial unrest, sexual violence, the death of innocence – she has also made successful forays into Gothic novels, suspense, fantasy, and children's literature. As novelist John Barth once remarked, "Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map."

Where she finds the time for it no one knows, but Oates manages to combine her ambitious, prolific writing career with teaching: first at the University of Windsor in Canada, then (from 1978 on), at Princeton University in New Jersey. For all her success and fame, her daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast.

Good To Know

When not writing, Oates likes to take in a fight. "Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost," she says in highbrow fashion of the lowbrow sport.

Oates's Black Water, which is a thinly veiled account of Ted Kennedy's car crash in Chappaquiddick, was produced as an opera in the 1990s.

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey selected Oates's novel We Were the Mulvaneys for her Book Club.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Rosamond Smith
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 16, 1938
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lockport, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


There was a time in the Village of Willowsville, New York, population 5,640, eleven miles east of Buffalo, when every girl between the ages of twelve and twenty (and many unacknowledged others besides) was in love with John Reddy Heart.

    John Reddy was our first love. You never forget your first love.

    And where John Reddy wasn't exactly our first love (for after all, our mothers must've loved our fathers first, when they were young, in that unfathomable abyss of time before our births—and certain of our Willowsville mothers were in love with John Reddy) he supplanted that first love, and its very memory.

    This time we most cherish isn't the tense "public" time of John Reddy's notoriety: those seventy-two hours when he was an actual fugitive from justice and the object of a statewide manhunt by New York State troopers and other law officers, to be tracked down in the mountains and arrested and brought home in shackles and most of it reported on TV and in the local papers, John Reddy Heart's face reproduced in the media daily for weeks: sixteen years old, good-looking even though battered and bleeding, stubborn, mysterious in his refusal to speak, his eyes heavy-lidded with secrets. Nor did we most cherish the drama of his trials in the fall, and yet more publicity, lurid screaming headlines: SUBURBAN TEEN TRIED IN SHOOTING DEATH OF MOTHER'S LOVER—16-YEAR-OLD TRIED AS AN ADULT, D.A. CALLS "VICIOUS MURDERER"—in Time, Newsweek, Life. And footage on network TV. (Even in English and European papers, we were told, there werearticles, with accompanying photographs, of John Reddy Heart.) Nor did we most cherish the giddy weeks of "The Ballad of John Reddy Heart," by the rock band Made in USA, which was number one on the charts within a week of its release.


John Reddy, you had our hearts.
John Reddy, we would've died for you.
John Reddy, John Reddy Heart.


Words you couldn't actually hear clearly, the amplified guitars, drums and general screeching were so loud. ("The Ballad of John Reddy Heart" sold more than any other single record—this was before tapes and CDs—in the history of Willowsville and vicinity. Though the music was kind of crude, you'd have to acknowledge, and Made in USA might be characterized as early, unintentional grunge. And we all resented the way, in the ballad, "John Reddy Heart" was portrayed. For he just wasn't the John Reddy any of us knew, our classmate.)

    More distorting yet, and luridly sensational, was the CBS TV film in two parts The Loves of the White Dahlia, a docudrama supposedly based on the private life of Mrs. Dahlia Heart, John Reddy's mother—the most controversial female to ever reside in the affluent suburb of Willowsville, New York, in its century and a half of history. But this film, in our mayor's incensed words "a libel upon our village as upon the Heart family," wasn't aired until several years later, when we were all away at college, and the Hearts themselves long departed.

    No, it's a quieter time we cherish. Those of us who knew John Reddy well. As Trish Elders would say, "He's someone you feel. Though he enters you through the eyes, he's someone you feel." This time when John Reddy, on probation, was living alone on Water Street, devoted to finishing his senior year of high school after twelve months' incarceration at Tomahawk Island Youth Camp (in the Niagara River) where he'd "maxed out" (as we'd learned to say casually) for getting into fights, failing to rack up a single day off for good behavior. The fights hadn't been John Reddy's fault, we were sure. He'd had to protect himself against other inmates, bigger, older guys, and guards, too; not just his physical self but his honor "as a man." So John Reddy's basketball teammates Dougie Siefried and Bo Bozer told us, incensed—"Because you know John Reddy, he's not gonna take any shit from anybody. John Reddy's the kind of guy you'd have to kill to make give in."

    It was thrilling to hear Willowsville boys talk like this. The boys we'd gone to school with all our lives. Alluding to matters girls weren't supposed to know, though we could guess (we believed we could guess) what they were, sort of—" Forbidden acts," as Verrie Myers said gravely. Dougie and Bo were a year younger than John Reddy, in our class at school, but, speaking of John Reddy, they took on the elusive qualities of someone older, deeper into masculine experience. They frowned, brooded, sniffed, lit up cigarettes (forbidden for guys on teams) and shifted their shoulders inside their maroon Wolverine jackets in the way that John Reddy shifted his inside his black leather jacket. A signal they were restless, eager to be gone. Their aggrieved nasal voices were eerie echoes of John Reddy's voice. A slight drawl and sexy drag to vowels that wasn't western New York State but John Reddy's enthralling accent we'd been informed was west Texan.

    Not that it was one hundred percent certain where John Reddy was from, still less where he was born. One newspaper, at the start of his trial, claimed he'd been born in Gila Bend, Arizona. Another, in Las Vegas, Nevada. All we knew absolutely, as Bo Bozer said, with satisfaction, was, "Anywhere but here."


* * *


    "On probation? What's that mean, exactly?"

    "He's out of prison. But he's, like, still in. Under the surveillance of the state. He has to report to a probation officer. He isn't `free.'"

    "He's maybe—being watched?"

    It was a melancholy kind of glamour: John Reddy back among us, in Willowsville, but not living in his family house on St. Albans Hill (though still furnished, the Heart house was empty); instead, he lived in a shabby two-room apartment (we'd been told, we'd never seen) on narrow, hilly Water Street, south of Main and a short block from the old Willowsville Water Mill. John Reddy would be eighteen the following February. (We knew of his birthday from the papers.) He'd lost a whole year of school; his own class had graduated and moved on while he'd been shut up in prison—"You have to know that injured his pride as much as being an ex-con. And being `on probation' for another twelve months!"

    John Reddy's family, the Hearts, had vanished from Willowsville. This surprised us—we'd always believed they loved him. They'd stand by him.

    It was said that John Reddy was stubborn and "unrealistic"—wanting to reenter our school, which had the reputation of being possibly the best, the most academically demanding high school in upstate New York, to get his State Regents diploma. He'd personally petitioned to be reinstated to WHS and the board debated the issue heatedly, and after a close ballot voted to allow him back—with the mean proviso that he be barred from "all sports and extracurricular activities of any kind taking place outside regular school hours (8:45 A.M. to 3:15 P.M.)."

    A slap in the face to all of us! Especially Coach Woody McKeever and the varsity basketball team. John Reddy had been their star forward.

    Of four hundred seventeen students enrolled at WHS at that time, John Reddy Heart was the only one not living with any family, any adult. The only one "on his own." It seemed strange to us, and wonderful. We spoke of him in hushed, reverent tones. It was enough to utter his name, to summon tears to our eyes. Living alone? Alone? But he's only a boy. Because John Reddy was a minor on probation, he had a nine p.m. curfew weeknights, an eleven p.m. curfew weekends, and was forbidden to associate with other persons on probation or on parole. He was forbidden to drive more than twenty miles from his official place of residence without permission and he was forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages or associate with people who did. (Did this mean that John Reddy couldn't drop by the Haven for even a Coke, or hang out at Tug Hill Park if some of the guys were playing softball and somebody's older brother had brought along beer on ice?) Of course, John Reddy was forbidden to use drugs or to associate with people who did.

    "But John Reddy would never get lonely, like the rest of us," Verrie Myers argued. "He wouldn't be weak in that way. He doesn't need other people." Verrie had been in love with John Reddy Heart since the age of eleven years, two months, and eight days.

    Quickly Mary Louise Schultz said, "If John Reddy seemed to need another person, it would be out of kindness to him. Or her."

    Those stolen evenings in Verrie Myers's canary-yellow Olds convertible her parents had given her as a surprise present for her sixteenth birthday. Remember the sharp lovely smell of new: the leather interior of the hue of butterscotch, soft as human skin. And the gleam of flawless chrome like the purest of smiles. The glittering instrument panel. "I'm the luckiest girl in the world," Verrie would say, smiling, as if by rote, as if she'd been taught these words, this refrain, almost a song, by her elders, "—and part of my luck is I know it. Except—" And she sighed wistfully, yet happily too, and we sighed with her, for there was John Reddy Heart and none of us had him. Six or seven of us crammed breathless into the Olds. Skinny-haunched Ginger McCord half sitting on Millicent LeRoux's sturdy lap. We smoked a shared pack of Winstons, a secret from our parents, who would've been shocked (though most of them smoked too). As John Reddy Heart was a secret from our parents. "God! I'd want to die if anyone found out. If he found out," Trish Elders murmured. Her fair skin emitted a feverish heat. She squirmed in excitement. We laughed but we were thinking the identical thought. If our parents knew. If guys at school knew. Shelby Connor said, "He wouldn't tell." Millicent LeRoux said, "That isn't the point. The point is, we've got our pride. Dignity. We are who we are. I mean—aren't we?"

    "No! No, no!"—we squealed like maniacs.

    In Verrie Myers's canary-yellow Olds convertible swinging into what was called the lower village from the hilly St. Albans neighborhood at the northern edge of Willowsville where we lived on the Common, Hampton Hill Drive, Meridian, Castle Creek, Turnberry, Glen Burns Lane. Passing at Brompton and Seneca the glimmering-pale Unitarian church. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house where Smoke Filer lived, slabs of granite, planes of glass, looking at dusk like a seductively lighted cave. There was our school: Willowsville Senior High School set back on its ten-acre lot, bell tower lighted. There was Tug Hill Center, a Revolutionary War landmark. We turned onto Main Street passing familiar storefronts, some darkened, some lighted, the Willowsville Sport Shop, The Bookworm, The Silver Shoppe, Harwood's Stationers, the Glen Theatre where on weekend evenings we were taken by our boyfriends often on double or even triple dates casting sidelong shivery glances at one another and biting our fastidiously lipsticked lips to keep from dissolving into peals of unfeminine laughter. Are you going to kiss your date tonight? That guy? That mouth? And what about his tongue, ugh! And his hands! And—the rest. Zipped up inside his clothes where you can't see. Verrie slowed the car to cruise past the Avenue of Fashion (as it was called): our favorite stores were Laura Ashley, Jonathan Logan, the Village Tartan Shoppe, Pendleton. We were rich girls but we were kept on strict allowances. Not one of us had her own credit card. No one at WHS had a credit card. When money was spent on us, as it would be, summer camp at Lake Placid, tennis lessons at the Club, riding lessons, ballet lessons, SAT tutorials, our debuts at the Buffalo Cotillion, beautiful birthday cars like Verrie Myers's, our parents would spend lavishly but it was their prerogative entirely, their generosity. We wouldn't have believed we were entitled, for we were good moral Protestant girls anointed with the virtue of frugality.

    "God! I don't think we should be doing this. Last time—I got scared we'd be caught. It's kind of—crazy, isn't it?" Pattianne Groves pleaded. "—I mean, isn't it?"

    And now past Spring Street. Mill Street. The Old Eagle House Inn. The Willowsville Free Library in its 1838 granite-gray wedge of a building. The Willowsville Police, the Willowsville Fire Co., the colonial Willowsville Township Building on Willowsville Green. Traffic was light on Main Street at this hour of evening: almost nine p.m. Most stores were closed. Even the Sunoco station was closed. Verrie deftly timed the Olds to cruise through green lights block after block at twenty miles per hour—"just like Daddy does." We'd begun to breathe quickly. We fumbled cigarettes, coughed as we exhaled smoke. We knew that Pattianne was right. Yet we couldn't help ourselves. We'd lost John Reddy Heart to his fate for a year and almost seven months of our young lives while he'd been at Tomahawk Island and, before that, incarcerated in the Buffalo House of Detention awaiting trial; and now he was returned to us; how could we help ourselves?—leaning forward eager and tremulous as songbirds on a wire in a fierce head wind. "He'll be there. I know." Verrie spoke softly, as if, like a stage actress, she were uttering prepared words. She exhaled smoke in thin jerky streams. At North Long Street she turned right by Burnham Nurseries and so onto potholed Water Street and across a narrow plank bridge spanning Glen Creek. Our pulses leapt. "Now we can't turn back—can we?" We were in lower Willowsville, a no-man's-land it seemed to us, grassy vacant lots, a hulking railroad overpass, a used car dealer's and smudged-looking stucco buildings, row houses with cramped front yards—a neighborhood so different from the rest of our village it might have been in Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, or Lackawanna or the gritty urban edge of Buffalo itself. Hungrily we stared at the storefronts of John Reddy's neighborhood for we were determined to memorize John Reddy's exterior life. "This is so sad. He's alone. And here." Where once he'd lived like us on the Hill. Decades later, some of us could recite in unison the litany of names of Water Street: Gino's Grocery, Ace TV-Radio Repair, Midas Shoe Repair, Glenside Vacuum Cleaner Repair, North China Take-Out with its mysteriously steamed window and glaring fluorescent interior. "When I'm in danger of getting a migraine," Shelby Connor confided in us, at our tenth class reunion, "—it's signaled by a flash of that steam-and-fluorescent. Vague-and-dissolving light and blinding light. And blindness rising in my left eye. North China Take-Out!" We knew what Shelby Connor, through her life a gawky lovely bird-girl of fluttery hand motions and eyes so pale a blue you'd believe you could see through them, meant exactly; yet could not have explained. It was above the North China's perpetually steamed window that John Reddy Heart lived, and this was a fact that filled us with an excitement so immense it verged upon terror.

    We were approaching John Reddy's building—three-story sandstone taking up most of the block. Behind it was Glen Creek, invisible from the street; a short block away was the old "historic" water mill, darkened at night. The creek made a murmurous whispering sound. It was Willowsville's single creek, with several waterfall drops, a creek so narrow and picturesque visitors believed it must be man-made, but in fact it was natural, it was ours. It seemed right that John Reddy lived by Glen Creek even if, from Verrie's car, we couldn't see the creek. We could hear it, like silk being shaken, shaken, shaken.

    "I'm afraid. If he sees us—?"

    "I can't believe we're doing this. Oh God."

    "Who's going to know?"

    "If— he —"

    "He would never tell."

    Verrie braked her car to a jolting stop. We saw she was excited, clumsy. There were cars parked along the curb and one of them was John Reddy's, a rust-flecked old Mercury that yet exuded an air of sinister seductive power. Just to look at that car, its darkened windows, a cobwebby crack in the rear window, a crooked radio antenna and dented right front fender—"You felt you'd been in it. Taken for a fast, rough drive somewhere unknown. With him."

    The Mercury was there, John Reddy was home! We jostled one another leaning over to peer up at his lighted window on the third, top floor of the building. Or what we believed to be John Reddy's window. "Is that it? Are you sure?" "Of course I'm sure! Don't be ridiculous." "Who's being ridiculous? That's an insult." "Shhh! Look." We stared, breathless. We saw that the blind at that window had been pulled down carelessly and hung crooked. Possibly it had been tugged off its roller, broken, exactly what an impatient John Reddy might've done. (He had a short, hot, dangerous temper. This temper had been his undoing. We knew.) Anxiously we studied the blind, which was like none we'd ever seen in our homes: the blinds in our homes, selected by our mothers, or interior decorators, were custom-made, elegantly slatted venetian blinds; this blind was parchment-colored, soiled, riddled with cracks. Verrie cried, "Oh!—look." "What? Where?" "Where?" "Millie, damn—move your head." Passing across the inside of the blind there'd come a faint fleeting shadow, blurred like a bird in flight, that might've been the shadow of a human figure, a tall lean young male figure—but we couldn't be sure. Trish Elders said, as if in pain, "That's him. I saw. For a moment." (Trish was the one of us who'd come belatedly to adoring John Reddy, she who'd once laughed at us. Mingled in her feeling for him was a shaken sense of her own judgment, for if she'd been blind and ignorant only a short while ago, mightn't she be blind and ignorant another time?) Shelby cried, "But where? My eyes are staring but I can't seem to see." Mary Louise Schultz murmured something inarticulate, groaning. For suddenly there was nothing above us but the blank lighted window, a taunting rectangle of opaque light. A grimy window and soiled crooked blind. Pattianne, who was a good Christian girl and never, ever swore, even under her breath, was heard to say huskily, "Damn."

    Verrie parked the car and gave the command—"Come on." She was the first out of the car, panting as if she'd run from St. Albans Hill to here. The rest of us climbed out timorously and were surprised to discover the night air so chill, moist and almost hurtful to our nostrils. "Like the very air, the smell and taste of the air, was different in John Reddy's neighborhood. Downhill, like at the bottom of a well." We realized it was November already, winter imminent. A hurtful bright moon like bone glared above us. "Oh, God. Oh." We clutched at one another. Hands grappled hands, icy cold. There seemed to be too many hands—too many icy fingers. From somewhere above (John Reddy's window had been opened by about six inches, you could imagine him shoving it up with his muscled arms, scowling, impatient because the room was overheated and stuffy) came a sound of blues music—heavy, percussive, adult. It wasn't the simple pop-rock music we listened to. In that instant we knew that our fates would be a single fate: we were virgin Willowsville girls and would remain virgin Willowsville girls all our lives. Though John Reddy would be our first lover, our virginity would grow back. We were impenetrable. This virginity, like a curse, would persist through our brave, desperate attempts at adulthood. Through our marriages, our plunges into motherhood and adultery. Through separations, "nervous breakdowns," divorces, second marriages, further motherhood. (Mary Louise Schultz, seemingly not so competitive a cheerleader as the rest of us, would have the most babies: four.) We were virgins in memory of John Reddy Heart and those lovesick nights on Water Street, on the downside of town.

    Thinking Our fathers would kill us if they knew!

    Thinking Our mothers would die of envy. We can't tell them.

    One of us, it might've been Millie LeRoux (of all good girls, a Sunday school teacher at the First Episcopal Church, a Girl Scout, a Student Council officer, with beautiful calm eyes) suddenly cupped her hands to her mouth and called yearningly, "John Reddy! John Red-dy!" Appalled, another of us, it might've been Shelby Connor, or Trish Elders, moved to quiet her—"Shhhh!"—and Millie whirled in frantic reaction, driving an elbow into the other's breast, which, fortunately, was cushioned by her WHS cheerleader's jacket. Mary Louise Schultz astonished us by moaning, "John Red-dy! John!" Verrie groaned as if she were being tortured, swaying, big-eyed, yanking at her wind-whipped blond pageboy hair. For what was to prevent us from calling for John Reddy Heart, screaming like young female cats in the throes of their first incandescent heat? What if? And why not? Did it matter that John Reddy Heart had killed a man, and a stark-naked man at that, discharging a .45-caliber bullet into his brain in an instant of passion never to be reversed, erased, or even comprehended? Did it matter that John Reddy Heart was condemned and feared by our elders, most of all our appalled fathers? Did it matter that though adoring him we were terrified of him? That his touch would have paralyzed us? There seemed nothing to prevent us from rushing up the dim-lit stairs of that shabby building on Water Street to pound on John Reddy's door crying "Killer-Boy! Killer-Boy! Let us in! Help us!" How decent sane good-girl behavior was the thinnest of membranes that might be ripped in an instant the way, in the hope of minimizing pain, you tear a bandage off a small wound you believe has healed.

    Next morning and all the mornings to follow for years! the tale told, retold! at our high school with its redbrick opulence and Doric columns that was our unacknowledged church in those heated adolescent years, over the telephone lines connecting individuals as in a massive X ray of a single brain's circuits every household of significance in and surrounding the sacred Village of Willowsville. And through the Village—on the streets, the sidewalks we'd memorized from early childhood. In Nico's, in the Crystal, in Greek Gardens, in the Haven, in La Casa di Napoli Pizzeria & Restaurant, at the lunch counter at Muller's Drugs, in the mirrored foyer of the Glen Theatre. Breathless the tale of that night John Reddy Heart opened his door to those unnamed girls of the Circle who'd come to him in secret. Their pale flowerlike faces, their fevered eyes. Taking these girls one by one by their chill trembling hands and leading them into his bedroom. Laughing at their fearfulness. Their shyness. Their luminous-beautiful young-girl bodies stripped of the disguise of their clothes. John Reddy Heart making love to each of the girls in turn. And more than once, in turn. The sexiest boy. The sweetest boy. And the most gentle, because so practiced. Six girls, or seven. In some accounts eight. Ten! A dozen! John Reddy would've been equal to the challenge. John Reddy would've grinned saying Sure, why not? Kissing the girls each in turn, and at that moment she was the sole girl of all the world. And afterward he'd keep quiet about it. That wild night on Water Street! John Reddy Heart wasn't the type of boy to boast about girls he made out with, ever. Or women. Not the type to boast about anything—if you were John Reddy, what need? You'd trust John Reddy with your virginity. With your reputation. With your life. A keeper of sacred secrets, John Reddy Heart.


    It wasn't like that.

    Instead, we lost courage.

    A cold drizzle was perceived to be falling, blown slantwise by an unfriendly wind. Overhead the bone-bright moon that had contributed to our madness was being blown away like crumpled trash. On Water Street a car's headlights blinded us approaching and passing and we hid our heated faces in terror of being recognized. Except for Verrie who, in a trance, was rummaging through a filth-stained green plastic garbage can at the curb. We whispered, "Verrie, what are you doing? Verrie!" Verrie Myers had attained schoolwide fame the previous spring playing Shakespeare's Portia. Her presence on stage, unnaturally highlighted, had riveted us all. That moonshaped face like a cameo we hadn't realized was beauty until then. The way in which, assured, dreamlike, she'd delivered her lines. Who knew if Veronica Myers could act, and who cared? In awe we'd stared and stared. Mr. Lepage, our sexy drama teacher who devastated us with his witty sarcasm, stared at her in awe. There was Verrie Myers who was our friend, a girl like the rest of us since kindergarten at the Academy Street School but up on stage she was transformed, a girl we hardly recognized. Now on Water Street, shivering beneath John Reddy's window, we stared in astonishment at Verrie dipping her hands into trash and sloppily bagged garbage. There was a strong smell of coffee grounds, a stink of rancid meat. Yet Verrie didn't hesitate, plunged to the elbows. Her pink-pearlescent manicured nails! the opal keepsake ring on her right hand her boyfriend since ninth grade Kenny Fischer had given her! The silver I.D. bracelet on her left wrist identical to the bracelets all the girls of the Circle, and other girls in emulation of us, owned. Verrie cried, "I got it! Here!" What had she snatched up?—we pulled her to the car, idling all this while at the curb, prepared to escape. (There were customers at the North China eyeing us curiously. What if someone knew us? And cars were passing in the street. John Reddy would hear the commotion and look out his window and possibly recognize Verrie Myers's yellow convertible.)

    Verrie shifted the car into gear violently and drove us away, to safety we thought, we prayed. Swerving on wetted pavement. She was driving too fast for these narrow roads, we could scarcely recognize our surroundings—Beechwood? The bottom of Mill Street? Chalmers? Taking the back way home, the long way home, careful to avoid Main Street, crossing Glen Creek over a sturdy metal bridge at Garrison, and now past darkened, featureless Tug Hill Park and Battlefield from which all visitors were officially banned at sunset—"The Bloodiest Single-Skirmish Battle of the Revolution, August 2, 1777." What spiritual influence this bloody battle of nearly two centuries before exerted upon our Willowsville generation was never made clear to us; what agitated ripples in consciousness across the decades, what dreams of reckless and even self-destructive heroism; what visionary hunger to locate in the world the origin of our most vivid and powerful dreams. Even if the search is futile—even if! The mysterious lightweight object Verrie had discovered in the garbage can was being passed among us with excitement, shyness, some initial skepticism and even repugnance. As Verrie whispered, thrillingly, "His mouth touched this. His actual mouth." Not many years after this luminous night there would float across how many hundreds, thousands of movie screens in America the gigantic so-beautiful face of Veronica Myers in her film debut and we who gazed upon it with anxious affection would recall this moment, the demented drama of this moment, Verrie's whispered words which several times she repeated as if in the presence of the deaf—"His mouth. John Reddy Heart's actual mouth." Ginger McCord whispered back, frightened, "Verrie, you're crazy." Was Verrie performing, merely? Or is performing our truest human nature? Less certainly, Mary Louise Schultz whispered, "You're all crazy." Yet by degrees the realization was sinking in. Even as Verrie's car sped homeward, away from the lower village. Of course. Of course! One of us, it may have been Trish Elders, the least likely among us, touched the can's opening, the mouthlike aperture, with a reverent finger; as we stared, she brought her lips to it, shyly. God!—we felt the visceral charge deep in the pit of Trish's belly. Her soft lips, the sharp-eyed aperture! And in that instant we saw John Reddy carelessly yanking off the pull top, in that quick brisk matter-of-fact way in which boys yanked off pull tops, so very different from the more cautious, timid (for what if the liquid inside fizzes up, spills) way in which girls yanked off pull tops; how many times we'd surreptitiously witnessed such an act, John Reddy out back in the school parking lot, at noon: the yanking-off of a pull top, the tossing away, the lifting to the mouth, to drink. Inside Verrie's can, which was slightly dented, there was a pungently, sweetly chemical smell; if you shook the can gently you could hear a remote, liquidy sound, a faint roaring like the sound of a seashell pressed against the ear. An empty Coke can, tossed away amid smelly trash. "His mouth. His actual mouth!" We began to laugh, to hyperventilate. We were choked, scandalized, incredulous. "John Reddy Heart's actual mouth touched this."

    The Coke can would be Verrie Myers's to cherish, forever. She was the one of us to have snatched it from oblivion.

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Table of Contents

I. KILLER-BOY 1
II. MR. FIX-IT 219
III. THIRTIETH REUNION 305
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 4, 2012

    ...what was remembered as true

    "After thirty years, maybe it didn't matter what was true or not, only what was remembered as true."
    As the book begins, we hear Willowsville students talking about John Reddy Heart, the young man "with a past" who moves to their affluent town, and becomes famous when accused of a murder. John Reddy is the prodigal son, John Reddy is the change from the norm. For as the first part goes on, (for too long), we hear nothing from John Reddy, and the stories seem to surpass rumor to legend.
    Oates, with a tongue-in-cheek rendering similar to MIDDLE AGE, similar to many of her upper-class settings, skewers these privileged youth, and makes them emptier and emptier as everything goes along. John Reddy, in their collective mind, appears as a god, omnipresent, and serves the purpose of meaning and as a godly aspect of the glory of youth for everyone. I imagine the looks in their eyes as they talk about him (almost as if being interviewed for a documentary) the same as a fellow I used to work with, let's call him Trevor.
    Trevor was a child of privilege, not humble. Everything was paid for. Work and school part-time. Still, he couldn't handle the "pressure", quit all for two months, and Daddy hired a life coach/daily yoga instructor. When he finally returned to work, he had also taken one of his biannual trips to "Nawlinz, as he insisted it had to be called. The light in his eyes, talking about "NAWlinz" was his best quality. . .until we found out, that everything was over-exaggerated, and based on lies. Yet he truly believed it, and loved that he could experience something other than NYC.
    He is the same as the privileged of Willowsville, and I resented their one-sided romanticization of John Reddy. They created "him" to fill their empty lives, and envied how simply he could live.
    This all contrasts with Part Two when we learn more of John Reddy, and of Dahlia. We experience her profound and unusual logic, per Oates' creation. When Dahlia tells us "none of us ask to be born, Johnny. It's smart-asses like you who rub it in," we start to feel the futility of Dahlia, always having to make herself up, to search and plan, use her wiles to get anything in life, the trap that some women fall into. She says, "If Americans don't think something is worth paying money for, they won't think it's worth a moment's glance. And maybe it isn't." You could apply that to her herself, for she needed to be a commodity, goods her whole life.
    The book concludes with the 30-year reunion of John's class, expecting his arrival. "He can't just stay away forever, can he? Don't we mean anything to him at all?" These people, the men fat, the women operated upon, have not changed. They float from feast to orgy, recapturing glories. A roast pig is devoured in a metahpor to John. They were at their then, and will never change.
    I'm biased against these people, for they are the same as the ones who promised to gay bash me if I went to my own reunion. And yet, somehow, when I remember the person I loved the most in high school, who there was no hope to ever be with, who was mysterious, and did my best friend an amazing kindness, I suddenly felt for these Willowsville residents. For they end up in an idyllic state, paired up with their sweethearts imagined or otherwise, and fulfilling who we thought we were and would always be. The person that can never be otherwise. For "After high

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2003

    Broke Heart Blues was Dull

    I totally agree with the critic Michelle Goldberg. Only the middle section of the novel which focused on John Reddy Heart was worth reading. There were huge sections of rambling, stream-of-consciousness utterly boring rants by some of the high school grown-ups that I simply did not read, and I never skimmed any other Oates' works. I am sure this was her purpose, showing the black hole of banalness that these people lived in, but I could not appreciate her novel as I am sure she does.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2000

    A Different Joyce Carol Oates

    The sytle of this novel is very different from most of Joyce Carol Oates' other novels because the tone is far more 'optimistic.' This is an examination of 1950s hero worship (think Elvis or James Dean) and the real character who has to live that life. Beautifully told but far simpler than many of Oates' novels, and similar in style to her earlier novel 'Because it is Bitter..' One of her best stories.

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