I was really hoping that I would like Them (1960) by Joyce Carol Oates. I’m not too familiar with Oates’s work, but Them was on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. It also won the National Book Award. I vaguely remember being generally impressed when I read We Were the Mulvaneys ages ago, so I had relatively high hopes. Also, long books are much easier to read when they capture your attention, so I was hoping I’d get sucked in and fly through it. I took the book on vacation to Costa Rica, thinking I would have plenty of time to finish. Unfortunately, I found this book exceedingly difficult to read. God, it was just page after page of dreary hopelessness. I had a hard time connecting with the characters, or even understanding their motivations.
Them is more than 500 dense pages chronicling the life of Loretta and two of her kids: Jules and Maureen. Much of the story takes place in the Detroit slums and spans the time from the 1930’s to the 1967 race riots. The book begins when Loretta is 16 years old. She lives in hard circumstances, with a dead mother, an alcoholic father who lost hope after he lost his job, and a mean brother. Yet she’s young, beautiful, and optimistic. She meets up with a boy she likes and she ends up bringing him home, knowing that no one else will be in the apartment. She wakes up from a loud noise right next to her head. Her brother had come home and shot her lover in the head with his newly acquired gun. Horrified and terrified, Loretta runs into the street. She ends up confessing all to a new police officer she knew from school and marries him in a panic. And that is the end of her hope and independence.
Loretta goes on to have four kids, but it is the eldest two that the book follows. Jules is the oldest and even Loretta does not know if Jules’s father was her first lover or the policeman she later married. Jules falls deeply in love with a girl, Nadine, he happens to see when doing errands in the nice suburbs of Detroit. She has a strong influence over him for the rest of his life. I’m sure that Nadine is an example of all the privilege that Jules never had in his life. I can definitely see why he would be attracted to her, but they were both acting so irrationally, I had a hard time believing in them.
Maureen is a smart, introverted girl who does well in school. She desperately wants to get away from her loud, unpredictable, abusive family. She begs her mother to let her get a job, but her mother refuses. Maureen’s hope slowly drains away in the stifling atmosphere. Her grades go downhill and she starts skipping school. Finally, Maureen sleeps with men for money, desperate to have some control over her life.
I saw a glimmer of hope and optimism in all three main characters at one point, usually just as they were becoming adults. But it was inevitably crushed out of them. The neighborhood and family were so toxic that Maureen and Jules often tried to stay away from the city and their family. But it always seemed to follow them. “But, honey, aren’t you one of them yourself?” (537) They just had no chance to improve themselves. And quite often, the characters were mean and unlikable. Loretta treats Maureen horribly, and Jules turns into an abusive pimp. Perhaps this book is a more realistic portrayal of life in the slums than literature usually allows because it is so dark, violent, meaningless, and depressing. Finally, Oates also does not give much detail or historical context. Either she expects the reader to already know a lot, or she wants her readers to be like her characters, stumbling around in the dark.
This book is certainly memorable and affecting, but it was a painful chore to read.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.