During her long and distinguished career, Joyce Carol Oates never has shied away from the controversy that can come with using celebrities and tabloid news stories as the inspiration for her fiction. Her novel “Black Water” (1992) drew on the Chappaquiddick incident; “Blonde” (2000) gave us Oates’s take on the life of Marilyn Monroe; and “My Sister, My Love” (2008) reimagined the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. As recently as 2013, Oates prompted outrage for her unflattering portrait of poet Robert Frost in a short story published in Harper’s.
Oates’s latest novel, “The Sacrifice,” seems likely to stir up another flap. At first glance, it appears to have been fashioned with remarkable alacrity from recent headlines. The book is about the mistreatment of a young, possibly unreliable victim of sexual abuse by a criminal justice system that doesn’t have the trust of the African American population it is charged with serving. But Oates’s novel isn’t a conflation of the University of Virginia rape case and the widespread protests over policing in Ferguson, Mo., and New York. Rather, it takes its premise from an older source: the story of Tawana Brawley, who, in 1987, created a furor when she falsely claimed that she had been kidnapped and raped by a group of white men in Dutchess County, New York. It’s not hard to see why Oates would be drawn to this material. More than a quarter of a century after the Brawley hoax was revealed, the questions it raised about race relations and the justice system remain pressingly relevant.
In fictionalizing the story, Oates relocates it from upstate New York to the post-industrial ruins of Pascayne, N.J., an imaginary town on the Passaic River “defiled by factories and mills dumping waste,” and decimated by riots in 1967. Amid this desolation, the novel opens with a series of gripping scenes fit for a police procedural. We see a distraught woman, Ednetta Frye, desperately searching the streets of Pascayne for her 14-year-old daughter, Sybilla. “No one so alone as the bereft mother seeking her lost child in vain,” Oates writes. A chapter later, the girl is discovered in the cellar of a disused food-processing plant. She’s been hog-tied, beaten and smeared with dirt and excrement. Racist taunts are scrawled on her skin. Fearfully, she mutters, “They say they gon come back an kill me.”
But at the hospital, Sybilla’s credibility comes under suspicion. She refuses to be examined by a white doctor. Once her mother arrives, Ednetta blocks any attempt to give her daughter X-rays, a blood test or a pelvic exam, saying, “I’m bringin my baby home can’t none of you stop me.” During a brief, antagonistic interview with a female police officer, the girl indicates that she was abducted and abused by five men, at least one of whom was a “white cop” with “yellow hair.”
Oates employs multiple points of view to tell this explosive story, and — at least for the book’s first half — this technique effectively illustrates how the incident reverberates through different constituencies in the town. However, the novel changes once Sybilla’s cause is taken up by the Rev. Marus Mudrick, an Al Sharpton-style activist whom Oates describes as “a flamboyant black agitator more in the tradition of Congressman [Adam Clayton] Powell than of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.”
Marus and his twin brother, Byron, a civil-rights lawyer, are so compelling a portrait of misguided ambition and fraternal dysfunction that they nearly overwhelm the novel. “There was no competing with Marus Mudrick,” Oates writes. “You were a follower, a disciple, or an enemy.” That’s also true for the other characters in the book. What begins as a wide-angle work of social realism about racial injustice and poverty becomes — after the arrival of the Mudricks — a grim study of exploitation. Marus uses the alleged gang rape as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement and enrichment, holding news conferences, staging marches and foolishly accusing a local district attorney of being one of Sybilla’s rapists. The result, inevitably, is violence. Sybilla, whom Marus calls “the perfect black victim,” ultimately escapes the clutches of the Mudricks, but to perhaps an even worse fate.
“The Sacrifice” is a bleak and, at times, painful reading experience. There is a clinical quality to Oates’s naturalism, which eschews love, hope and humor, as if they would take away from the seriousness of her subject. The prose is vivid but surgical and unadorned. All lyricism is muted, all tangents are curtailed, and the potential for satire — especially in Oates’s portrait of Marus Mudrick — is never developed. The book keeps to its course like medicine being drawn through an I.V. tube. The one character who seems to offer an opportunity for redemption — the educated, well-intentioned Puerto Rican police officer initially assigned to Sybilla’s case — fails to overcome the daunting obstacles in her path.
In an afterword, Oates explains that “The Sacrifice” is “strongly linked” to her 1969 novel, “them,” which is about working-class life in Detroit in the years prior to the civil unrest of 1967. That book, despite its subject, was written with a verve and humanity that are absent from “The Sacrifice.” Discussing the composition of “them,” in an author’s note, Oates writes that she deliberately understated the “sordid and shocking events of slum life” in the novel for fear that “too much reality would become unbearable.” This does not appear to have been a concern in composing her latest.
Jon Michaud is a novelist and librarian who lives in Bethesda.
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco. 309 pp. $26.99