“We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?”
When Joyce Carol Oates slows down she is quite capable of writing very good fiction. This novel from 1996 is one of her more famous and popular novels, and given how many novels she’s written, maybe one of a very few that anyone not otherwise quite familiar with her could name, alongside some of the Wonderland quartet and of course Blonde. The novel is about a family in upstate New York from the 1960s through the 1990s, and it’s narrated by Judd, the youngest child (of four) who now in adulthood around 30 works as a small town journalist close by the town he grew up in, and has become a catalog of the family diaspora, from its place of origin. And like a lot of youngest children he feels lost about the present, having spent the least amount of time living the family history, and the most amount of time knowing those events as history. And since he’s spent the most time alone with his parents, he’s got questions and some resentment. But that’s what is boiling under the surface of a lot of the narration in the novel, but the story itself is both the past and the future of the family, especially as it spiraled out of a seminal event.
In 1976, Judd’s older sister (four years) went to the prom where she was plied with alcohol and raped in a Corvette by a business associate of her father’s. Hazy on the details, she doesn’t feel she can squarely, legally press charges, and when she tells her parents, and her father rushes to the boy’s house and breaks his nose, the business associate negotiates having the mutual assaults (uneven as they are) cancel each other out and every move on. The Mulvaney’s obviously cannot move on as a sexual assault and the resulting trauma is not the same as having your nose broken for committing a sexual assault, and the cracks that were apparently already there begin to deepen.
That’s the central event for the family, but the other parts of the family’s connections — the oldest brother, Mike Jr, feeling too much pressure to stick around and joining the military, the next oldest brother, a near genius going off to college and wanting to run, and Marianne, traumatized, but also realizing that she hasn’t actually begun to understand much about herself, and Judd, who is left while everyone else gets to leave. That of course leaves the parents, whose marriage also gets shaken by the events.
The novel is incredibly strong at times, and stays with you for a long time. There’s a few things that lean into the ridiculous, and it’s both powerful, and possibly overwhelming to stay with Marianne through her trauma, but over all this is a very good (and very 1990s) American novel.