Oates raises a troubling question here—whether moral fiction can emerge out of a morally reprehensible character.
Chester Cash, aka Daddy Love, is an itinerant preacher with a penchant for abducting and torturing young boys, and the novel begins with one such abduction. Five-year-old Robbie Whitcomb is doted on by his mother, Dinah, but one day, in the parking lot of a shopping mall, she neglects her son just long enough to have him spirited away by Daddy Love. In trying to prevent this horrifying act from occurring, Dinah is run over by Love’s van and never physically recovers. Love makes off with Robbie and eventually moves him from Michigan to New Jersey, where they live in virtual seclusion. Love gives out that he’s a widower who doesn’t want to talk about his late wife—a statement which is, by the way, true—and a suspicion lingers in our minds that he might well have murdered his wife, a well-to-do woman about 40 years older than Love. Through confinement and humiliation, Robbie is trained to see the preacher as his “real” father, although Love, like his ironic name, is obviously a grotesque perversion of paternal solicitude. He deprives Robbie of food, confines him in a “truth box” and sexually abuses him. After six years, Robbie is able to escape and reunite with his parents. Dinah is jubilant about this reunion, though Whit, Dinah’s husband, is somewhat less so, in part because his status as the father of a missing child made him a quasi-celebrity. But Robbie, of course, is not the same child at 11 that he was at 5, and their family reconnection is, to put it charitably, uneasy.
This is an uncomfortable novel to read; Oates makes us squirm as she forces us to see some of the action through Love’s twisted and warped perspective.