This novel is presented to us in the opening section and author’s introduction from its publication as a “history in novel form” which may or may not have truth to it. (I am dubious about it myself). And there’s a strange middle section that lasts about ten pages where a main character in the novel (there’s mostly two, but kind of a third) writes a series of letter to “Miss Oates” (ie Joyce Carol) as if she were a former student reflecting back on college courses and looking for guidance from an old professor, in this case expressing frustration and blame for how her life has turned out. And like a lot of novels where the character is pseudo-aware of their creator, it works kind of.
The novel itself is told through long sections devoted to chunks of time in a white, blue-collar Detroit family’s churning through life. There’s the general distrust of Black people and immigrants, there’s the ever-present threat of and appeal of crime, and there’s the constant attention paid to attempting upward mobility.
It’s like a lot of novels from the sixties, where the ability and access of mobility is both a present way out of poverty as well as a kind tantalizing pipe dream that is snatched away. And like a lot of novels from the sixties, it has checking out of American life, out of capitalism, as a vaporous lie.
This book is almost the kind of book I’d expect of a white woman pretending to write a white James Baldwin book to produce. It’s good to some degrees, it’s bad to some degrees, and something I almost never say: it’s too long. (By which I mean the narrative can’t fully support its heft and weight).