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MY HEART LAID BARE by Joyce Carol Oates


by Joyce Carol Oates

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0452280060
Publisher: Dutton

Oates’s 28th novel, another installment in the “Gothic Quintet” that includes such energetic faux romances as Bellefleur (1980) and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), is one of her most inventive and entertaining yet. The story is a surprisingly deft allegory of the formation and fortunes of the American republic, spanning three centuries and the history of a family of resourceful scalawags who embody the seductive charm and adroit criminality of their inchoate country as it shapes its own destiny. The foreground actions include the execution of “outlaw” lady’s maid Sarah Wilcox and a fortune won at the racetrack—which is later stolen, then later still makes Sarah’s descendants rich. Their dominant member is Abraham Licht, an urbane confidence man whose love of creating labyrinthine swindles (“The Game,” in his parlance) takes such forms as a larcenous “Society for the Reclamation and Restoration of E. Auguste Napoleon Bonaparte” (i.e., the former emperor’s unthroned son) and his imposture of Dr. Moses Liebknecht, a practitioner of “Autogenic Self-Mastery” who “treats,” romances, and weds a wealthy sanatorium patient. Abraham’s duplicitous proclivities are inherited, to varying degrees, by his sons Thurston (an accidental murderer), Harwood (a calculating one who, furthermore, assumes his victim’s identity), and Darian (a gifted musician who will fall in love with his stepmother), as well as their black adopted brother Elisha, who will become a charismatic black leader, and Abraham’s eldest daughter Millicent, Elisha’s lover and a trickster scarcely inferior to her progenitor. Oates juggles all this high-concept hugger-mugger expertly, springing one amusing narrative surprise after another while also working an impressive amount of US history into the fabric of her extravagantly colorful characters’ adventures. Nor is her manifest (though never obtrusive) theme neglected: This being a persuasive vision of an America founded on violence, miscegenation, and rapacious self-interest. That the result is also irresistibly comic is so much frosting on a sumptuous cake and one of the most inviting products of Oates’s incomparably rich imagination.