The missing protagonist at the heart of Joyce Carol Oates’s Broke Heart Blues

An evocative story, Broke Heart Blue weaves the voices of countless upper class Americans together in a powerful tale of memory, perception and class.

The background to the plot is the early years of John Reddy Heart, a working class teenager from our of town and new to a well-off school in Willowsville in upstate New York. Adored by the girls for his rugged aloofness and admired by the boys for his manliness, he ends up shooting a man – Melvin Riggs – apparently after Riggs has a fall out with Reddy’s Mum, the beautiful and out of control Dhalia Heart. We subsequently learn that John Reddy was not responsible but takes the fall anyway in order to protect his family.

What’s interesting is how little John Reddy Heart is in it. The book is split into three parts. Part 1 is at high school and told through the eyes of various teenagers, first focusing on their lust for him, later the trial. Part 2 is twenty years later when John Reddy is trying to make his way as Mr Fix It, an odd-jobs person, and build a relationship with a young woman, Nola. And Part 3 is a 30 year reunion for the school, where the privileged kids of yesteryear reunite in a decadent party that is fuelled by alcohol and the lack of John Reddy a Heart.

Beyond the missing Heart, so to speak, the most striking feature of the book is the style. At no point is there a clear narrator but instead a range of interweaving voices and perspectives. The technique is at once gripping and difficult, and has the effect of reinforcing the subjective views on what’s happening and the impossibility of getting clarity. It’s all emotion, conjecture and desperation. Other than John Reddy there are no strong characters developed, despite this being a dense 500 page book.

In their youth, the mass of teenagers – Verrie Myers, Art Lutz, Kate Olmsted, Dwayne Hewson and countless others – are so in thrall to their passions that they can’t get a clear sense of what’s going on for John Reddy. He is living a difficult life with a neglectful mother, forced to be the grown up rather than her – but none of them ever appear to realise the gravity of the situation.
And thirty years later, at the reunion, their memories of school are idealised and often wrong. There are events they have completely rewritten, people forgotten – and John Reddy Heart looms large in their lives despite them not knowing him while at school or since.

They are, it seems, all successful white upper class Americans who were always destined to do well. Their love affair with John Reddy Heart represents a shallow infatuation with the working class and troubled life of John Reddy Heart which they appropriated for their own stories, entertainment and collective memories without ever thinking of his life. In this sense, John Reddy Heart is missing from the story both in the sense that he isn’t much part of the plot and in the sense that his thoughts, motives and life are never seen or understood by the other characters that place such significance in him.

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