Notorious case that was never black and white
Lorraine Courtney on a brave novel that reflects today's racial tensions in the US
Joyce Carol Oates's rate of production has been staggering. More than 1,000 short stories, some 50 novels, a dozen-plus books of essays, plays, and poetry ever since 1963. One of America's best writers, Oates writes at a relentless rate. But how did someone so gentle and birdlike become fixated with the darkest of human impulses?
In her latest offering, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer fictionalises a brutal 1980s rape hoax. In the real-life case, a young black woman, Tawana Brawley, claimed that she had been kidnapped and violently raped by a gang of white men in New York State. The allegations captured the nation's imagination especially after the Reverend Al Sharpton supported Brawley and named the alleged perpetrators. But eventually, her claims were found to be false.
It was thought she made it up to avoid punishment for staying out for several nights.
Many of Oates's novels use her somewhat bleak birthplace (Lockport, New York, on the Eerie canal) as their backdrop and she sets her version of this real-life event in the fictional town of Pascane.
The 15-year-old girl - Oates calls her Sabella Fry - is discovered in the cellar of a derelict fish factory close to the polluted river that runs through the town. She's in an awful condition, beaten up, gagged and covered in dog faeces with racial epithets carved onto her body and supposedly the victim of a brutal gang rape. Then an Al Sharpton-esque character, the Reverend Maracy Mudrick, enters the story along with his twin brother Byron, a lawyer. He assures Sabella that he will crusade for her cause and so the two of them spin the rape allegation into a racist fairytale.
In one scene, Mike Tyson drives up and gives her his Rolex watch. But Mudrick takes it from her.
"Mike Tyson's press agent and I conferred on this issue, and it was agreed, if Tyson saw you, he would leave a donation to the fund. And I will take that, now," he says, as he was to steal all of the donations she received.
Oates's rendering of this outrageous story is beyond daring. She sensitively portrays her cast of characters, both black and white, with the exception of the manipulative and deceitful Mudrick, a figure who comes across as rather Dickensian in his hunger for acclamation and power.
Some readers might have issues with Oates's jarring portrayal of black, working-class life. Still, in this highly provocative book, she wades into territory that very few white writers would ever dare to tread and has given us a very honest and raw blend of sizzling drama and the brutal truths of race in our world today.
Given recent racial tensions in the US, it is a courageous reminder that some situations are far from being as black and white as they may first seem.
Oates, as always, writes with the ease of a master of language, uncoiling the bitterest of stories with barely a word wasted.
Joyce Carol Oates
Harper Collins, tpbk, 320 pages, £12.99
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