How many times will I use the word “love” in this review?
I was introduced to Joyce Carol Oates in high school by a favorite teacher. We read some of her short stories and I was in love with how dark and fucked up they were. Some of my friends have told me that Oates was ruined for them in high school, and this is sad because her writing is amazing.
I’ve read several of her short story collections and novels and love how her mind works and the beauty of her writing. Even her “lighter” fiction is still dark. (I just looked up her bibliography. I think I’ve read 1% of her work. I knew she had written a lot, but I didn’t know how much!) I love how her main characters are often older girls and young women who experience and do horrible things. She is incredibly gifted at capturing how girls this age can completely shut down and let things happen to them. Or, when they fight back, they fight hard and things are taken care of.
When I heard that she was writing children’s fiction, I imagined that it was going to be about a sweet little kitten who burns down a forest. When she got into YA, I was extremely happy because I knew it she would be a favorite, especially for students who liked Laurie Halse Anderson. These weren’t going to be fluffy books – they were going to be realistic moments of pure fucked-upped-ness. Big Mouth & Ugly Girl did not disappoint. Freaky Green Eyes? Holy shit. Small Avalanches and Other Stories had some previously published works and I hope a new generation of high school readers loved them as much as I did when I first read them.
And now to step back from this love fest to talk about Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.
The book starts in the late 50s in a broken industrial city in upstate New York. Blacks and whites are clearly separated, even though the children go to school together and in some places the men work together. There is clearly a black side of town and the kids know that they should not intermingle. This is especially true for the black boys and white girls.
The book opens with the death of Little Red — a sixteen year old white trash white teen. His body is found in the river with his skull crushed. Iris Courtney hesitantly approaches one of the police officers to whisper that she heard he had caused trouble with some bikers in the area.
And then we skip back in time to learn more about Iris.
Iris’ parents are violently in love. Persia, her mother, is beautiful to the point of pain and loves the attention she gets from men. At times this attention is what she seems to allow her to even exist. Iris is used as an accessory is picked up and put aside as needed. As her parents become more and more abusive to each other and ignore her more and more, she retreats into her own world. She begins to lose her emotions and finds herself distantly watching things that happen and wonders how she should feel. She studies everything, trying to learn how people act, respond, cope, and live.
Meanwhile, on the black side of town, Jinx Fairchild is playing basketball beautifully and is beginning to be scouted by colleges, even though he’s only sixteen. When he’s on the court, everyone adores him. Off the court, he’s just another black boy. Like Iris, he tries to disappear in good behavior. He doesn’t want to be noticed or to be an excuse or target for any of the whites in town. He’ll be out of here in a few years and he needs to dominate on the basketball court while hiding everywhere else.
And then Little Red brings Iris and Jinx together.
For the rest of the book, Iris and Jinx live mirrored lives, only it’s a bent and twisted mirror and the reflections don’t quite match. Iris begins to actually feel emotions, but only when she thinks of Jinx. She tries to bring their lives together somehow. She sees that they are forever linked and wants to keep this bond and let it grow and strengthen. Jinx, on the other hand, is horrified by what happened and hates that the only other person who was there was this younger white girl. He needs to stay away from her so he can stay away from his own mind.
As they get older, their lives continue to reflect each other. Iris becomes what she thinks a young white woman should be. Jinx becomes what he thinks whites want a black man to be, and painfully, what his black community wants him to be. As Iris takes on the role of successful adult, Jinx finds himself more and more trapped by a world he willingly stepped into. When Iris escapes she continues to study emotions and practice how she should act and respond. Persia was all fire and drink and the only way Iris can think to escape this is to have no feelings at all. Jinx feels too much. He knows everything has changed and he hates how his life was decided when he was still in high school.
By the end of the book they have both made decisions that will define who they are until they die. They each do what they think they are supposed to do, not necessarily what they want. One has to wonder if they even know what they want. They seem to stop making decisions and simply let things happen.
Their mothers also reflect each other. Both start out as strong women and as they grow older and doors begin to close, they find themselves trapped by their own expectations of what they should or should not be. Respect is lost and it breaks them both.
It’s a brilliant book. Oates’ writing is simply stunning. Sometimes her words twirl and spin slowly like honey being drizzled into hot tea. Descriptions and moments spill silkily across the pages. It is especially breathtaking when she does this during the darkest moments of the book. Her descriptions of ugliness, pain and fear follow staccato beats, pulsing into your mind. It’s poetry in prose form and as I read I had to pause from time to time to simply enjoy the rhythm of the book and reread the art of her writing. I have a feeling I’m going to gloriously devour more of her books over the next few months.