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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Richard Ford – The Sportswriter

Read October 2015

With its cynical, insightful and aloof protagonist, The Sportswriter is the first in the series of Frank Bascombe novels by Richard Ford. It covers a long Easter weekend when, in fact, very little happens, though a short term relationship with Vicki breaks down after a trip to Detroit and a friend, Walter, commits suicide.

The big events of Frank’s life seem to have taken place prior to the weekend and we learn about much of it through his reflections on the past and how it’s affected him: Ralph, one of his three children died; he let his relationship with his wife (known here only as X) collapse in the aftermath of the death; and, after a promising start, his career as a novelist is cut short when he chooses to become a sportswriter instead.

The core of the book is about Frank’s thoughts and the way he relates to and understands people. He is cynical, diffident, slightly lonely, though not necessarily unhappy. Throughout he offers remarkable and original insights into his own and others’ behaviour.

Interestingly, Frank is portrayed as a pretty average suburban American, not unlike Updike’s Rabbit. He is both unremarkable in his normality but also unique in his profound reflections. It is this, more than anything, that makes this such a good novel. Through Frank, Ford manages to demonstrate the individuality that underpins every apparently ‘normal’ life.

I can’t say I loved every bit of this book, though there are long sections of brilliance and Frank is a great American character who it is both entertaining and educational to spend time with. I know that I’ll be reading more about Frank Bascombe because his story, his spot-on reflections and his slightly wayward approach to life draws you in.