Review by Vivien Horler
A Book of American Martyrs (4th Estate)
Joyce Carol Oates
The perfect martyr is a suicide. This is the view of one of the minor characters in this often searing novel of life in 21st century America.
It was published earlier this year, as Donald Trump was sworn in as president, but it is set between 1999 and 2012, around the time Barak Obama became the chief resident of the White House.
And the novel pits two families against each other: one who would have voted for Trump, and one who would have voted for Obama.
They are the Dunphys, a right-wing Christian fundamentalist family from Muskegee Falls, Ohio, and the left-wing Voorheeses, from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Luther Dunphy is a carpenter and roofer, Gus Voorhees is a doctor who works at women’s clinics where he performs abortions.
Luther’s wife Edna May has not recovered from the loss of their youngest daughter in a car accident; she is heavily sedated and barely coping. Gus’s wife Jenna is a lawyer. Both couples have children of similar ages, notably their older daughters Dawn Dunphy and Naomi Voorhees, who are around eight years old when the novel begins.
Despite Jenna’s objections, Gus has gone to Muskegee Falls to run a women’s clinic there, leaving his family behind in Michigan. He knows he is vulnerable – a number of abortionist doctors have been shot in the US. Gus takes the precaution of having a Vietnam veteran escort him to the clinic each morning.
Luther, devout, a soldier of Jesus, regularly pickets outside the clinic. One day a fellow picketer tells him that Gus and his bodyguard often arrive at the clinic early, before the regular police detail turn up in time for the clinic opening and the arrival of the first anxious patients.
Luther sees this nugget of information as a sign that Jesus is telling him to be a soldier. Each abortion murderer who is assassinated means the saving of babies’ lives. If between 15 and 20 babies are slain each day at the Broome County Women’s Centre, then there are 100s of deaths a day across America.
Luther loves Edna May, but he knows she is weak. He believes that women who agree to abortion have no idea what they are doing. “A woman does not know her own mind. Especially a woman who has become pregnant, whose mental state has been thrown into disruption by what are called ‘hormones’.”
Meanwhile Gus of course believes entirely the opposite. He loves Jenna and his children, but his sense of his mission takes priority.
And so early one morning when Gus and his bodyguard arrive at the centre, Luther and his shotgun are waiting. He shoots Gus, and then the bodyguard. And then he kneels down in the centre car park, awaiting arrest.
Despite their differences, the families react similarly. Both Edna May and Jenna fall apart. The children have to live with infamy and notoriety. The daughters, Dawn and Naomi, try to make lives for themselves. Dawn – styled DD Dunphy, the Hammer of Jesus – becomes a successful boxer. Naomi , educated and articulate, drops out of college and sets up an archive relating to her famous father.
There are moments in this novel when you hold your breath. Much of the writing is extremely powerful, including the descriptions of DD’s fights. Oates, I discover, knows about boxing, and has written a book called On Boxing. There are other powerful moments, but I can’t tell you what they are for fear of being a spoiler.
Towards the end of the book Naomi and her uncle Kinch talk about martyrdom and suicide. Luther knew he would face death if he shot Gus, Kinch tells Naomi – he was a true suicide.
But what about Gus? He was a de facto suicide too in the risks he took, says Kinch. “He weighed the likelihood of his own death against the value of his services to women who needed him and decided it was worth it, whatever happened. The perfect martyr is a suicide.” Naomi is outraged.
Eventually Naomi and DD meet. It is hard to tell quite what DD feels, but we know about Naomi. Their lives have been shattered by their fathers’ decisions, and they are the collateral damage.
This is a powerful, page-turning novel by a writer who has an astonishing record, a book virtually every year since 1967.