Them Author:Joyce Carol Oates "Them" has an intriguing and even risky premise: Joyce Carol Oates, who was teaching literature at the University of Detroit in the 1960s, receives some rambling, emotionally revelatory letters from a former student and fashions a novel out of this poor girl's life story. — The girl was not a good student -- Oates had flunked her, and it's easy t... more »o see why if her epistolary manner indicates the quality of her literary essays. But the passion and the pain in her letters cry out for a story to be told, one that is probably more interesting than any that could have been furnished by a better, happier pupil. The girl is given the pseudonym of Maureen Wendall, and "Them" is the saga of her dysfunctional lower-class family from 1937 to about 1966.
A laundry list of domestic turmoil -- rape, murder, attempted murder, assault, accidental death -- devastates the Wendalls as they migrate throughout the poor neighborhoods of Detroit, chasing solvency and dignity in vain. Her older brother Jules, a restless, rebellious spirit, can't stay away from bad influences or out of trouble, and her younger sister Betty is a mischievous tomboy whose delinquency seems to arise from familial neglect -- they only take notice of her when she's doing something wrong, which of course is most of the time.
Maureen herself is bright enough and behaves well; she likes to read and makes the public library her sanctuary, where in the permanence of the words of Jane Austen novels she finds a comforting reality lacking in the instability of her home life. Her innocence is destined to falter, however; as a teenager, she begins meeting an older man and accepts money for having sex with him. When her ogreish stepfather suspects her of misdeeds, he beats her severely, incapacitating her to a bedridden, emotionally withdrawn state for about a year.
Jules, in the meantime, has quit school and begun living the life of a job-hopping, potentially dangerous drifter, part Frank Chambers, part Studs Lonigan, and (to be kind) a little part Tom Joad. He is hired as a chauffeur by a blundering rich (or once-rich) man named Bernard and through him meets his pretty niece, Nadine, a girl residing in an affluent suburb representing a world he has never before been able to attain. She runs away with him, and what happens to them on their cross-country journey and then afterward is too sad to be comical and yet too absurd to be tragic in the classical sense; too gross for the conventions of fiction, it could be expected to happen only in real life.
Oates culminates this novel filled with various kinds of violence in a race riot, against the backdrop of which the ideological diatribes uttered by several characters newly introduced to the story, advocating large-scale social changes for the nation, seem oddly removed from the more private concerns of the Wendall family. But, after all, the Wendalls' privacy is impacted and influenced by the public force of human presence, the people we don't necessarily know: "them." Much of the novel is uncomfortable to read, not so much with regard to the physical violence as when the characters use abusive language to hurt each other, but it resonates with a power and realism rarely seen in fiction.« less