A New York Times Notable Book
The Mulvaneys are blessed by all that makes life sweet. But something happens on Valentine’s Day, 1976—an incident that is hushed up in the town and never spoken of in the Mulvaney home—that rends the fabric of their family life...with tragic consequences. Years later, the youngest son attempts to piece together the fragments of the Mulvaneys’ former glory, seeking to uncover and understand the secret violation that brought about the family’s tragic downfall.
Profoundly cathartic, this extraordinary novel unfolds as if Oates, in plumbing the darkness of the human spirit, has come upon a source of light at its core. Moving away from the dark tone of her more recent masterpieces, Joyce Carol Oates turns the tale of a family struggling to cope with its fall from grace into a deeply moving and unforgettable account of the vigor of hope and the power of love to prevail over suffering.
“It’s the novel closest to my heart....I’m deeply moved that Oprah Winfrey has selected this novel for Oprah’s Book Club, a family novel presented to Oprah’s vast American family.”—Joyce Carol Oates
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:Lockport, New York
Education:B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
Read an Excerpt
We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?
You may have thought our family was larger, often I'd meet people who believed we Mulvaneys were a virtual clan, but in fact there were only six of us: my dad who was Michael John Mulvaney, Sr., my mom Corinne, my brothers Mike Jr. and Patrick and my sister Marianne, and meJudd.
From summer 1955 to spring 1980 when my dad and mom were forced to sell the property there were Mulvaneys at High Point Farm, on the High Point Road seven miles north and east of the small city of Mt. Ephraim in upstate New York, in the Chautauqua Valley approximately seventy miles south of Lake Ontario.
High Point Farm was a well-known property in the Valley, in time to be designated a historical landmark, and "Mulvaney" was a well-known name.
For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us.
For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!that's what they deserve.
"Too direct, Judd!"my mother would say, wringing her hands in discomfort. But I believe in uttering the truth, even if it hurts. Particularly if it hurts.
For all of my childhood as a Mulvaney I was the baby of the family. To be the baby of such a family is to know you're the last little caboose of a long roaring train. They loved me so, when they paid any attention to me at all, I was like a creature dazed and blinded by intense, searing light that might suddenly switch off and leave me indarkness. I couldn't seem to figure out who I was, if I had an actual name or many names, all of them affectionate and many of them teasing, like "Dimple," "Pretty Boy" or, alternately, "Sourpuss," or "Ranger"my favorite. I was "Baby" or "Baby-face" much of the time while growing up. "Judd" was a name associated with a certain measure of sternness, sobriety, though in fact we Mulvaney children were rarely scolded and even more rarely punished; "Judson Andrew" which is my baptismal name was a name of such dignity and aspiration I never came to feel it could be mine, only something borrowed like a Hallowe'en mask.
You'd get the impression, at least I did, that "Judd" who was "Baby" almost didn't make it. Getting born, I mean. The train had pulled out, the caboose was being rushed to the track. Not that Corinne Mulvaney was so very old when I was bornshe was only thirty-three. Which certainly isn't "old" by today's standards. I was born in 1963, that year Dad used to say, with a grim shake of his head, a sick-at-heart look in his eyes, "tore history in two" for Americans. What worried me was I'd come along so belatedly, everyone else was here except me! A complete Mulvaney family without Judd.
Always it seemed, hard as I tried I could never hope to catch up with all their good times, secrets, jokestheir memories. What is a family, after all, except memories?haphazard and precious as the contents of a catchall drawer in the kitchen (called the "junk drawer" in our household, for good reason). My handicap, I gradually realized, was that by the time I got around to being born, my brother Mike was already ten years old and for children that's equivalent to another generation. Where's Baby?who's got Baby? the cry would commence, and whoever was nearest would scoop me up and off we'd go. A scramble of dogs barking, their eagerness to be taken along to wherever a mimicry of my own, exaggerated as animals are often exaggerations of human beings, emotions so rawly exposed. Who's got Baby? Don't forget Baby!
The dogs, cats, horses, even the cars and pickups Dad and Mom drove before I was born, those big flashy-sexy Fifties modelsall these I would pore over in Mom's overstuffed snapshot albums, determined to attach myself to their memories. Sure, I remember! Sure, I was there! Mike's first pony Crackerjack who was a sorrel with sand-colored markings. Our setter Foxy as a puppy. The time Dad ran the tractor into a ditch. The time Mom threw corncobs to scare away strange dogs she believed were threatening the chickens and the dogs turned out to be a black bear and two cubs. The time Dad invited 150 people to Mulvaney's Fourth of July cookout assuming that only about half would show up, and everyone showed upand a few more. The time a somewhat disreputable friend of Dad's flew over to High Point Farm from an airport in Marsena in a canary-yellow Piper Cub and landed"Crash-landed, almost," Mom would say drylyin one of the pastures, and though the baby in the snapshots commemorating this occasion would have to have been my sister Marianne, in July 1960, I was able to convince myself Yes I was there, I remember. I do!
And when in subsequent years they would speak of the incident, recalling the way the wind buffeted the little plane when Wally Parks, my Dad's friend, took Dad up for a brief flight, I was positive I'd been there, I could recall how excited I was, how excited we all were, Mike, Patrick, Marianne and me, and of course Mom, watching as the Piper Cub rose higher and higher shuddering in the wind, grew smaller and smaller with distance until it was no larger than a sparrow hawk, high above the Valley, looking as if a single strong gust of wind could bring it down. And Mom prayed aloud, "God, bring those lunatics back alive and I'll never complain about anything again, I promise! Amen."
I'd swear even now, I'd been there.
For the Mulvaneys were a family in which everything that happened to them was precious and everything that was precious was stored in memory and everyone had a history.
Which is why many of you envied us, I think. Before the events of 1976 when everything came apart for us and was never again put together in quite the same way.
We Mulvaneys would have died for one another, but we had secrets from one another just the same. We still do.
I'm an adult telling you these things: Judd Mulvaney, thirty years old. Editor in chief of the Chautauqua Falls Journal, a twice-weekly publication, circulation 25,600. I've been a newspaperman or in any case working for newspapers since the age of sixteen and though I love my work and am, I suppose, fairly obsessed by it, I'm not ambitious in any worldly sense. I've been entrusted by the elderly gentleman publisher of the Journal, who happens to be a friend of mine, to put out a "good, decent, truth-telling paper" and that's what I've been doing and will continue to do. Moving out and up to better-paying jobs in larger cities evokes only the mildest glimmer of interest in me. I'm not a newspaperman who strives for sensation, controversy. I'd rather be truth-telling and I hope always to be without hypocrisy.
I've constructed a personality that is even and temperate and on the whole wonderfully civilized. People murmur to Corinne Mulvaney, after they've met me, "What a nice young man!" and, if they're women like her, women of her age with grown and far-flung children, "Aren't you lucky, to have such a son!" In fact I suppose Mom is lucky, not just because she "has" me but because she "has" my brothers and sister too, and we love her as much or nearly as much as she loves us.
Mom doesn't know and I hope never will know that two of her sons were involved in a criminal action of extreme seriousness. I'll be direct with you: I've been an accomplice to two Class-A felonies punishable by lengthy prison terms in New York State and I came close to being an accessory both before and after the fact in an actual case of murder and very possibly I would not be repentant if this murder had been committed. Certainly my brother Patrick, who came close to committing the murder, would not have been repentant. Asked by the judge to speak on his own behalf, at the time of sentencing, Patrick would have looked the man in the eye and said, "Your Honor, I did what I did and I don't regret it."
Many times in my imagination I've heard Patrick say these words. So many times, I almost think, in that twilight state of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness, which involves a subtle, shifting, mysterious personality few of us have explored, that in fact Patrick was arrested, tried, and convicted for murder, kidnapping, auto theftwhatever the numerous charges would have beenand had stood before a judge and spoke in just this way. Then I force myself awake, and relief floods through me like sunshine! It didn't happen, not in that way.
But this document isn't a confession. Not at all. I've come to think of it as a family album. The kind my mom never kept, absolute truth-telling. The kind no one's mom keeps. But if you've been a child in any family you've been keeping such an album in memory and conjecture and yearning, and it's a life's work, it may be the great and only work of your life.
* * *
I've said there were six in our family but that's misleading. Six is such a small number! In fact High Point Farm was busy and complicated and to a child confusing as a stage play in which familiar and unfamiliar faces are ceaselessly coming and going. Friends, relatives, houseguests, Dad's business contacts, hired helpevery day and frequently every hour you could count on it that something was happening. Both my parents were sociable, popular people who had little patience with quiet, let alone solitude. And we lived on a farm. We owned horses, dairy cows, goats, a few sheep, chickens and guinea fowl and geese and semi-tame mallard ducks. What a barnyard squawking in the early morning, when the roosters crowed! I grew up with such sounds, and the cries of wild birds (mainly jays who nested close about the house in our giant oaks), I came to believe they were part of the very fabric of morning itself. The very fabric of my soul.
Unlike neighboring farms in the Valley, High Point Farm wasn't any longer a "real" farm. Dad's income came from Mulvaney Roofing, in Mt. Ephraim. Originally, the farm property had included three hundred acres of good, fertile if hilly soil, but by the time Dad and Mom bought it, only twenty-three acres remained; and of these, Dad leased fifteen to neighboring farmers to grow timothy, wheat, soybeans, alfalfa, corn. But we had farm animals we loved, and of course we had dogs, rarely less than four, and catscats!always a select number of cats allowed inside the house and an ever-shifting number of barn cats. My earliest memories were of animals with personalities stronger than my own. A horse has a very defined yet often unpredictable personality unlike, for instance, a dog; a cat can be virtually anything. Dad used to complain jokingly that the boss of the household was a certain temperamental, supremely self-absorbed and very beautiful Persian cat named Snowball and the second-in-command was Mom, of course, and after that he didn't care to speculate, it was too humbling.
"Oh, yes! We all feel sorry for poor Curly, don't we?"Mom teased affectionately, as Dad made a brooding face. "So neglected in his own home!"
Say I counted the animals and fowl of High Point Farm with personalities defined enough to have been namedhow many might there have been? Twenty? Twenty-five? Thirty? More? And of course they were always shifting, changing. A new litter of puppies, a new litter of kittens. Spring lambs, goats. It was rare that a foal was born but when a foal was born, after many days and nights of worry (mainly on Mom's part, she'd sometimes sleep in the stable with the pregnant mare) it was quite an occasion. Several families of canaries had come and gone before I was born and it was a fond household tale of the time Mom had tried to breed canaries right there in the kitchen, the problem being she'd succeeded only too well, and at the height of the "canary epidemic" as Dad called it there were three large cages containing a total of fifteen canaries, trilling, warbling, chirping, scolding, sometimes screeching"And ceaselessly defecating," as Dad said dryly. I remember once when I was very small, Dad brought home a spindly-legged little gray goat because its owner, a neighboring farmer, had been going to shoot it"Come meet Billy-boy!" Dad announced. Another time, Mom and Mike returned from a trip to the feed store in Eagleton Corners with a large flamey-feathered golden-eyed strutting bantam cock"Everybody come meet Cap'n Marvel!" Mom announced. My first puppy was a bulldog named Little Boots with whom I would grow up like a brother.
When I think of us then, when we were the Mulvaneys of High Point Farm, I think of the sprawling, overgrown and somewhat jungly farm itself, blurred at the edges as in a dream where our ever-collapsing barbed wire fences trailed off into scrubby, hilly, uncultivated land. (On a farm, you have to repair fences continually, or should.) Getting us into focus requires effort, like getting a dream into focus and keeping it there.
One of those haunting tantalizing dreams that seem so vivid, so real, until you look closely, try to seeand they begin to fade, like smoke.
Let's drive out to High Point Farm!
Come with me, I'll take you there. From Route 58, the Yewville Pike, a good two- and three-lane country highway linking Rochester, Yewville and Mt. Ephraim on a straight north-south axis, you pass through the crossroads town of Lebanon, continue for eight miles following the Yewville River and crossing the erector-set new bridge at Mt. Ephraim. (Population 19,500 in 1976.) Continue along what turns into Meridian Street, passing the aged redbrick mill factories on the river (manufacturers of ladies' handbags, sweaters, footwear) that have the melancholy look of shutdown businesses but are in fact operating, to a degree. Take a right onto Seneca Street past the stately-ugly old Greek Revival building that is the Mt. Ephraim Public Library with the wrought-iron fence in front. Past the Mt. Ephraim Police Headquarters. The Veterans of Foreign Wars. The Odd Fellows. Bear right at the square, where most of the tall old elms have been removed, and continue on to Fifth Street, where you take a right at Trinity Episcopal Church.
Nowait. This route is a shortcut to avoid Mt. Ephraim's "downtown" (hardly more than three blocks but the old, narrow streets can get congested). Let's circle around to the far end of South Main Street, another right, and a left, now we're in an area of small businesses and warehouses. There's Mulvaney Roofinga smallish single-storey stucco building, recently painted an attractive dark green with white trim. On the roof are state-of-the-art asphalt-and-polyester shingles in a slightly darker shade of green.
How proud Dad was of Mulvaney Roofing. How hard he'd worked for it, and to build up his reputation as a man you not only wanted to do business with because his product was so fine but because you liked and respected him as a damned nice guy.
Now back onto Fifth, and continue for three blocks. Passing on the left Mt. Ephraim High where we Mulvaney children all went to school, in turn (factory-style design, flat leaky roof and cheap bargain bricks built in the mid-Sixties and already showing signs of wear) and the school playing fields and at the corner a town ballpark, nothing spectacular, a few bleachers and a weedy infield and litter drifting in the wind like tumbleweed. There's Rose & Chubby's Diner, there's the Four Corners Tavern with the cinder parking lot. Past Depot Street. Past Railroad. Down the long hill past Drummond's Gloves, Inc.still operating in 1976, skidding just ahead of bankruptcy. (Mr. Drummond was an acquaintance of my dad's, we'd hear of the poor man's problems at mealtimes.) Bear right at the fork in the road past Apostles of Christ Tabernacle, one of Mom's first churches in the area but back before Judd was born, a sad cinder-block building with a movie house marquee and bright pink letters REJOICE ALL, CHRIST IS RISEN! Continue across the train tracks and past the Chautauqua & Buffalo freight yards. You'll see the water tower fifty feet above the ground on what I'd always think were "spider legs": MT. EPHRAIM in rainwashed white letters. (Probably there are Day-Glo scrawls, initials and graffiti on the water tower, too. Probably CLASS OF '76 MT.E.H.S. There's an ongoing struggle between local officials who want the tower clear of graffiti and local high school kids determined to mark it as their own.)
Turn now onto Route 119, the Haggartsville Road, a fast-moving state highway. Gulf station on the left, Eastgate Shopping Center on the right, the usual fast-food drive-through restaurants like Wendy's, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken all recently built along this strip in the early 1970's. Spohr's Lumber, Hendrick Motors, Inc. Familiar names because the owners were friends of my dad's, fellow members of the Mt. Ephraim Chamber of Commerce, the Odd Fellows, the Mt. Ephraim Country Club. The traffic light ahead marks the town limits. Beyond, on the left, is Country Club Lane that leads back from the busy highway for miles in an upscale "exclusive" residential neighborhood; the Mt. Ephraim Country Club itself isn't visible from the highway but you can see the rolling green golf course, a finger of artificial lake glittering like broken glass. On the right is a similiar prestige housing development, Hillside Estates. Now you're out of town and the speed limit is fifty-five miles an hour but everyone is going faster. Heavy trucks, semis. Local pickups. You're passing small farms, open fields as the highway gradually ascends. Railroad tracks run close beside the road for several miles then veer off through a tunnel that looks as if it's been drilled through solid rock. Beyond a scattering of shantylike houses and a sad-looking trailer village there's a narrow blacktop road forking off to the right: High Point Road.
Now you're in the foothills of the Chautauqua Mountains and those are the mountains in the distance ahead: wooded slopes that look carved, floating. Mt. Cataract is the highest at 2,300 feet above sea level, chalky at its peak, visible on clear days though it's thirty miles away. It looks like a hand doesn't it? Marianne used to say like someone waving to us. In winter this is a region of snow vast and deep and drifting as the tundra. In my mind's eye I not only see but cringe at the blinding dazzling white hills stretching for miles, tufted and puckered with broken cornstalks. Sparrow hawks circling overhead in lazy-looking spirals, wide-winged hawks so sharp of eye they can spot tiny rodents scurrying from one cornstalk to another and drop in a sudden swooping descent like a rocket to seize their prey in their talons and rise with it again. In warm weather most of the fields are tilled, planted. Hilly pastureland broken by brooks and narrow meandering creeks. Herds of Holsteins grazing; sometimes horses, sheep. You're in the deep country now, and still ascending. Past the crossroads town of Eagleton Cornerspost office and general store in the same squat little building, farm supply store, gas station, white clapboard Methodist church. Now the character of High Point Road changes: the blacktop becomes gravel and dirt, hardly more than a single lane, virtually no shoulders and a deep ditch on the right. The road rides the edge of an ancient glacier ridge, one of a number of bizarre raised striations in the earth in this part of New York State, like giant claws many miles long. And now there's a creek rushing beside the road, Alder Creek that's deep, fast-moving, treacherous as a river. Still you're ascending, there's a steep hill as the road curves, it's a good idea to shift into second gear. When the road levels, you pass the Pfenning farm on the right, which borders the Mulvaney propertyat last! The Pfennings' house is a typical farmhouse of the region, economical asphalt siding, a shingled roof exuding slow rot. The barn is in better repair, which is typical too. Lloyd Pfenning is Dad's major renter, leasing twelve acres from him most years to plant in oats and corn. A half mile farther and you pass the run-down, converted schoolhouse, Chautauqua County District #9, where a succession of families have lived; in this year 1976, the family is called Zimmerman.
Another half mile and you see, on the left, a large handsome black mailbox with the silver figure of a rearing horse on its side and the name MULVANEY in lipstick-red reflector letters. Across from the mailbox there's a driveway nearly obscured from view by trees and shrubs, and the sign Mom painted herself, so proudly
HIGH POINT FARM
The gravel drive is lined with tall aging spruces. Around the house are five enormous oaks and I mean enormousthe tallest is easily three times the height of the house and the house is three storeys. In summer everything is overgrown, you have to stare up the drive to see the housewhat a house! In winter, the lavender house seems to float in midair, buoyant and magical as a house in a child's storybook. And that antique sleigh in the front yard, looking as if the horse had just trotted away to leave the lone passenger behinda human figure, a tenderly comical scarecrow wearing old clothes of Dad's.
A storybook house, you're thinking, yes? Must be, storybook people live there.
High Point Farm had been a local landmark long before my parents bought and partly restored it, of course. Most recently it had been the secluded homestead of an eccentric German-born gentleman farmer who'd died in 1951 and left it to young, distant relatives living in cities far away with little interest in the property except as an occasional summer place or weekend hunting retreat. By 1976, when I was thirteen, High Point Farm was looking almost prosperous and it wasn't unusual for photographers from as far away as Rochester and Buffalo to come out to photograph it, "historic" house and outbuildings, horses grazing in pastures, antique sleigh and "quaint" little brook winding through the front yard. Each year, High Point Farm was featured on calendars printed by local merchants, the Mt. Ephraim Patriot-Ledger, the Western New York Historical Society.
On the wall of my office at the newspaper there's a Historical Society calendar for 1975, opened permanently to October"Pumpkin Time at High Point Farm!" A glossy picture of the scarecrow figure in the sleigh in Dad's old red-plaid jacket, earflap cap, bunchy khaki trousers, surrounded by Day-Glo orange pumpkins of varying sizes including, on the ground, an enormous misshapen pumpkin that must have weighed more than one hundred pounds. Beyond the figure in the sleigh is the lavender-and-fieldstone farmhouse with its numerous windows and steep-pitched roofs.
I've had the page laminated, otherwise it would long be faded and tattered.
Our house was a rambling old farmhouse of seven bedrooms, verandas and porches and odd little turrets and towers and three tall fieldstone chimneys. Dad said of the house that it had no style, it was styles, a quick history of American architecture. Evidence showed that as many as six builders had worked on it, renovating, expanding, removing, just since 1930. Dad kept the exterior in Al condition, of courseespecially the roofs that were covered in prime-quality slate of a beautiful plum hue, and drained with seamless aluminum gutters and downspouts. The old, central part of the house was fieldstone and stucco; later sections were made of wood. When I was very little, in the mid-Sixties it must have been, Dad and two of his Mulvaney Roofing men and Mike Jr. and Patrick repainted the wood sections, transforming them from gunmetal gray to lavender with shutters the rich dark purple of fresh eggplant. The big front door was painted cream. (Eighteen gallons of oil-base paint for old, dry wood had been required, and weeks of work. What a team effort! I'd wished I was big enough to use a brush, to climb up onto the scaffolding and help. And maybe in my imagination I've come to believe I had been part of the team.)
Part of the house's historic interest lay in the fact that it had been a "safe house" in the Underground Railroad, which came into operation after the passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act, one of the most shameful legislative measures in American history. My mother was thrilled to discover documents in the Chautauqua County Historical Society archive pertaining to these activities, and wrote a series of pieces for the Mt. Ephraim Patriot-Ledger on the subject. How innocently vain she was! How captivated, as she said, by "living in a place of history"! She'd been born on a small farm about fifteen miles to the south where farm life was work, work, work and the seasons simply repeated themselves forever, never adding up to what you'd call "history."
It was after I started school that Mom became seriously interested in antiques. She'd furnished much of the house with authentic period items, those she could afford, and it became her notion to buy and sell. She acquired some merchandise, set up shop in a small converted barn just behind the house, advertised in one or another local antique publications and painted a sign to prop up beside the scarecrow in the sleigh
HIGH POINT ANTIQUES
BARGAINS & BEAUTY!
Not that many customers ever came. High Point Farm was too far from town, too difficult to locate. Sunday drivers might drop by, enthralled by the sight of the lavender-and-stone house atop the hill, but most of Mom's visitors were fellow dealers like herself. If in fact someone wanted to buy an item of which she'd grown especially fond, Mom would seem to panic, and murmur some feeble apology"Oh, I'm so sorry! I forgotthat item has been requisitioned by a previous customer." Blushing and wringing her hands in the very gesture of guilt.
Dad observed, "Your mother's weakness as a businesswoman is pretty simple: she's a hopeless amateur."
Scouring auctions, flea markets, garage and rummage sales in the Chautauqua Valley, not above browsing through landfill dumps and outright trash, about which Dad teased her mercilessly, Mom only brought home things she fell in love with; and, naturally, things she'd fallen in love with she couldn't bear to sell to strangers.
What is truth?Pontius Pilate's question.
And how mysteriously Jesus answered himEvery one that is of the truth heareth my voice.
Once I thought I understood this exchange but no longer.
In setting forth this story of the Mulvaneys, of whom I happen to be the youngest son, yet, I hope, a neutral observer, at least one whose emotions have been scoured and exorcised with time, I want to set down what is truth. Everything recorded here happened and it's my task to suggest how, and why; why what might seem to be implausible or inexplicable at a distancea beloved child's banishment by a loving father, like something in a Grimm fairy taleisn't implausible or inexplicable from within. I will include as many "facts" as I can assemble, and the rest is conjecture, imagined but not invented. Much is based upon memory and conversations with family members about things I had not experienced firsthand nor could possibly know except in the way of the heart.
As Dad used to say, in that way of his that embarrassed us, it was so direct, you had to respond immediately and dared not even glance away"We Mulvaneys are joined at the heart."
What People are Saying About This
"It will consume you.” The Washington Post Book World
“New testimony to Oates' great intelligence and dead-on imaginative powers. It is a book that will break your heart, heal it, then break it again every time you think about it.” Los Angeles Times Book Review
“What keeps us coming back to Oates Country is her uncanny gift of making the page a window, with something happening on the other side that we’d swear was like life itself.” The New York Times Book Review
“A major achievement that stands with Oates’ finest studies of American life...the novel is a testament to the tenacious bonds of the family, the restorative power of love and capacity to endure and prevail.” The Chicago Tribune
Reading Group Guide
In We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates writes with piercing clarity and deep sympathy of the dissolution of the American family—and an American way of life. The Mulvaneys—parents Mike and Corinne, children Mikey Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd—seemed to lead an almost charmed life on their rambling farm outside a small town in upstate New York (familiar Oates territory). Mike owned a successful roofing company; Corinne kept the semi-chaotic household bustling through the sheer force of her good humor (and devout Christianity); animals—horses, cats, dogs—thrived alongside the kids, although none was immune to the occasional scrape.
And then on Valentine's Day in 1976, a high school senior raped the Mulvaneys' beautiful, kind, sweet-natured daughter Marianne, and the bottom fell out of their world. Oates deftly, heartbreakingly traces the impact of the rape on each member of this family, exposing how swiftly and irrevocably good can be dragged down and corrupted into evil. The once-popular, respected Marianne becomes a kind of pariah, abandoned by her friends and pushed away by her parents. Her father, overwhelmed by grief and anger, lets the business slide, alienates former friends, and devotes himself to alcohol and law suits. Mikey Jr. distances himself from the family and from his former life by joining the Marines. Patrick, the family egg-head, at first retreats into his coldly rational fascination with Darwin and the theory of evolution, but once he's at Cornell becomes obsessed with a scheme to avenge Marianne. With Judd, the book's narrator, as his accomplice, Patrick stalks and abducts the boy who raped Marianne. The power of life and death is in Patrick's hands, and yet when the crucial moment comes, he refuses to act on his power. Patrick's act of mercy stands as an emotional and thematic turning point of the book, though the resolution is far from simple or painless.
As in previous works, Oates here covers many years and retraces the complicated, twisting paths that bring her characters to their present plight. But We Were the Mulvaneys departs from earlier works in the brilliance and vividness with which it evokes the tensions and pleasures of family life and family relationships. The Mulvaneys manage to be both "every family" and minutely realized individuals with their own quirky obsessions and personal tragedies. The book is also packed with the images and ideas of the decades it covers—the music, products, politics, social norms, and mores of the late 1950s through the early 1990s. This large, sharply etched, immensely readable book is an examination of the American dream, and of the harsh but also beautiful realities that have transformed that dream over those past four decades.
We Were the Mulvaneys is at once a rich textured novel of family life and love (including the abiding love of animals) and a profound discourse on themes of free will, evolution, gender, class, spirituality, forgiveness, and the nature and purpose of guilt. A master of her craft, Oates weaves a seamless web in which ideas blend perfectly with plot.
ABOUT JOYCE CAROL OATES
Joyce Carol Oates has often expressed an intense nostalgia for the time and place of her childhood, and her working-class upbringing is lovingly recalled in much of her fiction. Yet she has also admitted that the rural, rough-and-tumble surroundings of her early years involved a "daily scramble for existence." Growing up in the countryside outside of Lockport, New York, she attended a one-room schoolhouse in the elementary grades. As a small child, she told stories instinctively by way of drawing and painting before learning how to write. After receiving the gift of a typewriter at age fourteen, she began consciously training herself, "writing novel after novel" throughout high school and college.
Success came early: while attending Syracuse University on scholarship, she won the coveted Mademoiselle fiction contest. After graduating as valedictorian, she earned an M.A. in English at the University of Wisconsin, where she met and married Raymond J. Smith after a three-month courtship; in 1962, the couple settled in Detroit, a city whose erupting social tensions suggested to Oates a microcosm of the violent American reality. Her finest early novel, them, along with a steady stream of other novels and short stories, grew out of her Detroit experience. "Detroit, my 'great' subject," she has written, "made me the person I am, consequently the writer I am—for better or worse."
Between 1968 and 1978, Oates taught at the University of Windsor in Canada, just across the Detroit river. During this immensely productive decade, she published new books at the rate of two or three per year, all the while maintaining a full-time academic career. Though still in her thirties, Oates had become one of the most respected and honored writers in the United States. Asked repeatedly how she managed to produce so much excellent work in a wide variety of genres, she gave variations of the same basic answer, telling The New York Times in 1975 that "I have always lived a very conventional life of moderation, absolutely regular hours, nothing exotic, no need, even, to organize my time." When a reporter labeled her a "workaholic," she replied, "I am not conscious of working especially hard, or of 'working' at all. Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don't think of them as work in the usual sense of the word."
In 1978, Oates moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where she continues to teach in Princeton University's creative writing program; she and her husband also operate a small press and publish a literary magazine, The Ontario Review. Shortly after arriving in Princeton, Oates began writing Bellefleur, the first in a series of ambitious Gothic novels that simultaneously reworked established literary genres and reimagined large swaths of American history. Published in the early 1980s, these novels marked a departure from the psychological realism of her earlier work. But Oates returned powerfully to the realistic mode with ambitious family chronicles (You Must Remember This, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart), novels of female experience (Solstice, Marya: A Life), and even a series of pseudonymous suspense novels (published under the name "Rosamond Smith") that again represented a playful experiment with literary genre. As novelist John Barth once remarked, "Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map." In 2000, Oates was a National Book Award finalist in fiction for Blonde, an ambitious and imaginative portrait of one of America's greatest cultural icons, Marilyn Monroe.
The dramatic trajectory of Oates's career, especially her amazing rise from an economically straitened childhood to her current position as one of the world's most eminent authors, suggests a feminist, literary version of the mythic pursuit and achievement of the American dream. Yet for all of her success and fame, Oates's daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast. Not surprisingly, a quotation from that other prolific American writer, Henry James, is affixed to the bulletin board over her desk, and perhaps best expresses her own ultimate view of life and writing: "We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOYCE CAROL OATES
What was the germ of the book? Was there a single scene or character or theme that inspired you to write it?
Primarily, I wanted to write about family life—the mysterious and seemingly autonomous "life" of the family that is made up of individuals yet seems to transcend individuals; the joys, the sorrows, the continuity of jokes and humor; the shared pain; the conflicted yearning for freedom simultaneous with the yearning for domesticity; always, the unspeakable mystery at the heart of the family. I wanted to write about complex lives as they are interwoven with one another, always defining themselves in terms of one another.
Which one of the Mulvaneys is your favorite character?
It's hard to answer—Marianne, Patrick, Judd, and Corinne are all favorites. Emotionally, I identified with Marianne; intellectually, with Patrick and Judd. My earlier sense of Patrick was that he would prove to be more violent, a terrorist, in a sense, obsessed with exacting justice for his family. But, as Patrick evolved, and came into his own, I saw that he was really a very civilized and judicious young man for whom "an eye for an eye" would be far too primitive a mode of justice.
Corinne, the mother of the family, is such a totally real woman—a mother all of us have known and remember from our childhoods. Is she modeled on any particular woman you have known? On your own mother?
Corinne is only partly modeled after several mothers of my acquaintance, including my own, Carolina Oates. These women are quintessentially maternal: warm, funny, immensely hard-working, generous, identified with their families to the suppression of their own personalities for long periods of their lives. I recall fondly how my mother helped me plant fruits and vegetables—especially a strawberry patch terribly prone to weeds. We lived north of Buffalo, on a small farm, much smaller than the Mulvaneys', and much less affluent. We had pigs for a while, and always chickens and cats. No horses, unfortunately.
Corinne is so close to Marianne. And then she totally rejects her daughter after the rape—why?
Corinne does not reject Marianne. She chooses her husband over her daughter out of desperation and must live with that choice. But she never ceases loving, and grieving over, Marianne, the child most like herself.
When the Mulvaneys' fall comes, it happens so fast. One day they're riding high and the next they're in the gutter—the American gutter of violence, homelessness, paranoia, law suits. Was there any way they could have averted their family tragedy?
If Michael Sr. had behaved differently, the Mulvaney tragedy would not have occurred. In the past, laws concerning rape and sexual assault were not as liberal as they are today in most states. Marianne knew that it would have been futile to press charges under the circumstances.
Do you think of this as a feminist novel?
The novel is not basically feminist; it has no ideology; it is a story about individuals, not a tract. Marianne exemplifies the way of love, magnanimity and forgiveness; Patrick, the way of intellectual analysis. In general terms, the tension is between a belief in Christianity and a belief in Darwinism: the one so spiritual, the other so intransigent in its physicality. In the end, through the experience of simply living, Patrick comes around to a spiritual transformation—the way of the community, living with others instead of in isolation. He overcomes his resentment and anger and falls in love at last, deeply and without calculation. And belatedly, he discovers his "Mulvaney-ness."
The center section of the book is so dark and yet it ends on a note of hope and resolution. Where did this ending come from? Did you consider concluding on a darker note?
This is life, generations following generations. The destructive father is gone, and will be remembered, ironically, with affection. Old wounds are forgotten in the excitement and enthusiasm of the future. To be true to life, a novel must have an ending that is inevitable given the specific personalities of the characters involved. The novelist must not impose an ending upon them. What might have been a tragedy in We Were the Mulvaneys becomes something quite different, yet to my mind this bittersweet ending is inevitable.
What about Marianne? She seemed to be heading towards a tragic fate and yet she ends up happy and fulfilled.
Marianne, lacking bitterness, is the sort of a young woman to inspire affection and love in others. Always, people are drawn to young women like Marianne; for her, it was a matter of accepting herself as not despoiled, a matter of her coming to like herself once again. She was fortunate to find just the right man to appreciate her, shrewd Whit West with his background of treating wounded and abused animals. Whit was canny enough to know how to love her without scaring her off.
Animals play a tremendously important part in the book—in a sense the Mulvaneys communicate and love through their animals. Have animals always been important to you? Did you have some larger message in mind that you wanted to express through animals?
I've always loved animals, and have lived with them all my life. As a child I had kittens and cats, and tended quite a large brood of Rhode Island reds (chickens). I've never before written about the emotional interdependence of human beings and animals, though it has been so much a part of my life (and the lives of many of my friends). I hoped to show, in the novel, the intensely connected parallel lives of people and animals. For Marianne, obviously, Muffin is far more than merely a cat; he's her deepest connection to her family and her girlhood, almost an aspect of her soul. In families with animals, there is always tragedy: animals age more quickly than we do, and their lives run out before our eyes. How difficult it is to speak of the secret meaning of animals without sounding sentimental . . . Yet it was a risk I was willing to take in order to tell the story of the Mulvaneys.
What about the house and farm? What is their meaning in the book?
Of course it's a profound shock to lose one's house, one's farm and identity. And one's trees . . . the spiritual connectedness between people and trees is quite emotional, too. I've always lived in a place with a lot of trees. When you lose your trees, you have lost beauty and solace and protection.
Why did you choose Judd, the youngest of the Mulvaneys, to narrate the story? Was it difficult to have him tell so much about the interior lives of characters he did not always understand?
Judd imagines but does not invent. He's the intellectual and moral center of the novel, as it is presented in terms of language. It's fitting that he's a newspaper editor and writer. Many people in families feel themselves in repositories of the family narrative—as Judd says, he is assembling a kind of family album, not writing a "confession."
Is this one of your favorite books?
We Were the Mulvaneys is perhaps the novel closest to my heart. I think of it as a valentine to a passing way of American life, and to my own particular child—and girlhood in upstate New York. Everyone in the novel is enormously close to me, including Marianne's cat, Muffin, who was in fact my own cat. One writes to memorialize, and to bring to life again that which has been lost.