Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart

2386 words - 10 pages

Carol Oates takes the title of her twentieth-and perhaps most assured and impressive-novel from Stephen Crane's poetry sequence, "The Black Riders and Other Lines," wherein the narrator comes upon a creature in the desert who is consuming his own heart and likes it not because it is "good," but precisely for its bitterness, and because it is his alone. There are many justifiably embittered hearts among Oates's characters, and if the morally most aware among them hang on tenaciously to their bitterness, it is not from some senseless clinging to their own misery, but from a desire to remain in touch with feelings and passions that others either cannot comprehend or refuse to countenance.Urban upstate New York from the mid-1950's through the early 1960's-the years of the Civil Rights movement, the ascendency of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy-as Oates depicts it in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is a place where distinctions and exclusions based on class and gender and especially on race are rigidly enforced. Oates's novel is filled with incidents of racial prejudice, some only reported, many brutal and violent:Blacks relegated to the backs of buses; the courts depriving a woman of her children when she marries a mulatto; a bigoted mayor preaching the supremacy of whites as the foundation of the republic; white police murdering or intimidating blacks, and white military officers physically disabling black inductees; white doctors providing inadequate care to blacks; teachers seating schoolchildren by race, or covering over hatred for all blacks by selective preference for some few.Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is a novel of crime and expiation, almost Dostoevskian in its reach. It opens strikingly, with the discovery of the body of Little Red Garlock, killed the night before in a fight with Jinx Fairchild. From a poor family-even the blacks regard them as "white trash"-Little Red, himself physically abused by his drunken father, is a spiteful and dirty-mouthed bully who glories in the humiliation of others. One of the victims whom he chooses to torment is fourteen-year-old Iris Courtney, first taunting her, then throwing gravel at her face, and finally insinuating a sexual relationship between her and Jinx, a black high school basketball star. Jinx, who responds instinctively and almost unaccountably to Little Red's treatment of Iris, kills him, taking another life to protect a white girl he barely knows. How Jinx and Iris live with the dark secret that they share-justifiably fearful that no one would believe the truth of their Story even if it were told-and also with their muddled and ambiguous feelings about each other, becomes the center of Oates's absorbing story.Jinx, a good student and standout athlete, is, indeed, the fair child of his family (his only brother, "Sugar Baby," will die ignominiously late in the book, brutalized by henchmen for a disgruntled drug...

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