The fates of two families on opposing sides of a seemingly unbridgeable cultural divide converge—not with sudden understanding but a shotgun blast—in Joyce Carol Oates’ fierce, provocative, and often maddening new novel. Luther Dunphy, a 39-year-old roofer and father of five, is a man of few words, though his spirit burns with righteous indignation for the unborn. Dr. Gus Voorhees, an obstetrician with three young children of his own, is a hero to the desperate patients he serves at women’s clinics across the Midwest and a monstrous baby-killer to the devout protesters who picket him daily. The two men meet for the first and last time on a chilly November morning in a rural Ohio parking lot; moments later, Voorhees is dead, and Dunphy is (at least temporarily) a household name. The public assigns its own titles of villain and martyr in the ensuing trial and media storm, and then moves on. But a verdict doesn’t bring anything close to peace for the collateral victims of the crime. In the shattered aftermath, wives and sons and daughters retreat from one another and turn toward new obsessions—radical evangelism, painkiller addiction, documentary filmmaking, even a professional boxing career—to mitigate or bury a hurt they can hardly begin to talk about.
At 78, Oates remains one of literature’s most enduring and prolific chroniclers of American darkness, mining the murky seams where moral relativism rules, faith turns to fanaticism, and good families fall apart. In Martyrs‘ best passages, she is mesmerizing—unleashing feverish streams of prose in great, incantatory swoons and laying her subjects bare without judgment or pity. But her enduring stylistic tics—the circular echoes and repetitions, the heavy italics for emphasis, the often “arbitrary” scattering of “quotation marks”—also begin to wear after nearly 750 dense, relentless pages. (As does her habit of abandoning certain characters; Luther’s second victim, a clinic volunteer, hardly merits more than a few dismissive paragraphs, while the youngest Voorhees daughter simply disappears in a postscript.) One of Oates’ greatest gifts is her ability to extract universal truths and resonance from even the thorniest subjects. So when the book’s final paragraphs offer sudden, sunny resolution, it feels not just incongruous but strangely unsatisfying: a firebomb diffused in a wisp of smoke. B-