Wounded families survive two men’s martyrdom.
Once again drawn to America’s heart of darkness, Oates (The Man Without a Shadow, 2016, etc.) takes on the incendiary issue of abortion in a long, contorted, and ultimately unsatisfying tale focused on the killing of Gus Voorhees, an abortion provider, by Luther Dunphy, an evangelical. The shooting itself interests Oates less than the aftermath, as each man acquires “a mythic-heroic reputation” and each man’s family is plagued by grief “that is not pure but mixed with fury. Murderous grief, that no amount of tears can placate.” It feels, says Voorhees’ daughter, like “an autoimmune disease.” Both Voorhees and Dunphy emerge as stereotypes: idealistic Voorhees was radicalized in “the sour aftermath of the Vietnam War” when he was a pre-med student at the University of Michigan. Rejecting the chance to join his father’s private practice, he champions women’s reproductive rights, becoming a vocal activist even in the face of death threats to his family. Dunphy, a carpenter, roiled by lust and weak to temptation, is suddenly converted in his wife’s evangelical church; Jesus, he comes to believe, impels him to avenge and prevent the killing of babies. “Free choice is a lie/Nobody’s baby chooses to die,” protestors chant at the Ohio clinic where Dunphy shoots Voorhees. Oates recounts Dunphy’s arrest, trials (the first ends in mistrial), and sentencing; but her interest is engaged more by his beleaguered wife and bitter, sullen daughter, Dawn. Viciously bullied, Dawn is beaten and violated—Oates revels in mud and blood; Dawn’s revenge is bloody, too, as is her later career as a boxer (a nod to Oates’ On Boxing, 1987); but these pale next to a horrifying scene where anti-abortion zealots, including Dunphy’s wife, rescue fetal remains from a dumpster in order to give them a Christian burial. In the last third of the book, new characters twist the plot in puzzling directions, leading to an unbelievable and anticlimactic end.
Oates masterfully renders tension and despair but not the complexity of her subject.