I had been meaning to read a book by Joyce Carol Oates for a while now. As a widely published modern author who has been nominated several times for the Pulitzer Prize, won the National Book Award for her novel “them”, and won the National Humanities Award, (and is also on Twitter – see an interview with Oates about her thoughts on the social media outlet here) I felt I was missing out having not read anything by her yet. So I picked up “Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.”
Besides having a title that reads like a poem (because it was taken from Stephen Crane’s poem “In the Desert”), which, I’ll admit, is why I picked it up in the first place, “Because It Is Bitter” was nominated for the National Book Award in 1990. Set in post WWII era America, the book tracks the lives of two characters – Iris Courney and Jinx Fairchild after one fateful act of violence unwittingly binds them to each other in a twisted yet endearing kind of way.
Iris is a white girl with an alcoholic mother and a father who is addicted to gambling away his money at the racetrack. Jinx is a black high school basketball star who is college bound and revered by the whole small town of Hammond, New York for his character and upwardly mobile goals. When I started the book I expected more of a love story, but really it is a character study on loneliness and how race, class, and gender hierarchies in the United States add to that state of loneliness.
The book reads like an Edward Hopper painting – two people sitting next to each other in a late-night diner, on the fringes of a small town setting, yet emotionally and psychologically they are miles away from each other.
While the plot seemed to ramble at times, Oates’ writing was spectacular. I understood the draw. Her sentences carry the reader like a river out to her island of isolation and just leave you stranded out there. Many reader reviews noted feeling confused and depressed at the end of the story, which I’m sure was Oates’ intention. The author also has a keen eye for detail and an ability to rouse reader speculation on 1950’s race and class issues. She includes a scene in which Iris’ mother, Persia, is driving home in the snow with her mixed boyfriend and they get pulled over and blatantly harassed by the police. Persia begins to cry, humiliated both for herself and her date, and the chapter leaves with her acknowledgement that neither can act as if they did not see what happened. Oates knows exactly what to draw a reader’s eye to in order to invoke the difficult questions. The pace was a little slow at times, but generally matched what was going on in the plot.
I think where Oates really shined was in her development of characters in the novel. Iris’ mother Persia shines through as a tour de force of alcoholism and incompetent parenthood. She is beautiful and glamorous and wonderfully distraught, and I just couldn’t help but drink her down like a whiskey sour. Iris plays perfectly into her role of well-meaning daughter/student/daughter-in-law who is just naive enough to be sweet, but just broken enough to be bitter. And Jinx, who at first appears as the perfect student/son/athlete who both hates Iris and loves Iris, eventually dwindles into an angry husband, father and Vietnam veteran.
The book felt very real, imbedded with the gritty realities of Civil Rights era America. I will likely be returning to the world of Joyce Carol Oates in the future. Her literary style makes for the type of book that asks questions, but doesn’t force you to have a dictionary nearby – my favorite kind of reading. While probably not the most momentous literary contribution, it was an easy enough read to be accessible, and heart-wrenchingly good.
Overall score: 6 – recommended, but it won’t change your life.
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 being “don’t waste your time reading this” and 10 being “you must read this at some point in your life.”)