“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre:  Literary Fiction/Family Saga Night. Sleep. Death
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Pub. Date:  June 9, 2020

Joyce Carol Oates has long been a favorite literary author of mine. Just when I think that she can’t do it again—write another gripping family saga—she does. The book’s title comes from the closing lines of Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight.” The poem “refers to the moment of transition that happens from one day to the next. The moment is used as a metaphor from changing corporeal existence to the spiritual existence.” The interruption of the poem is from PoetAndPoem.com. Yes, I needed to look up its meaning. Once I got it, I could easily see how its message is used repeatedly throughout this weighty novel of 800 pages.

The theme of “Night” is familiar to fans of Oates. Once again, she is writing about love and loss, which most would agree are preoccupations in our lives as well as in our literature. Oates has lost two husbands, one after forty-seven years of marriage, and the other after ten. I read her 2011 memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” which she wrote after the death of her first husband. There she suggests that to get through the agonizing grief, “the widow should think I kept myself alive.” In this novel, the author holds nothing back when writing on the psychological effects of grief on Jessalyn, who is one of the main characters, and a grieving widow. The novel is filled with her emotions of shock, loss, feelings of unreality, and thoughts of never loving again. Oates didn’t write personally after the loss of her second husband. I can’t help but wonder if she chose to tell any of that story here. The author has said no such thing, to be sure.

In this big, sprawling tale, Oates takes her readers to a small town located in upstate New York. Along with examining grief, healing and a family coming undone, the author takes on race and class issues. The story revolves around John Earle “Whitey” McClaren, a successful 67-year-old husband and father with a big personality. He is the anchor of the family as well as the respected former mayor of the town. When he sees two cops beating a defenseless, nonwhite man, he stops his car to intervene. The police do not recognize him and they use their taser guns on him repeatedly. Consequently, he has a stroke. And that is it for Whitey. Oates has him die in the hospital soon afterward.

The rest of the tale centers around Whitey’s widow and five adult children, all with very different personalities.  All the kids lose their footing after their father’s death. Their fragile mental states are not immediately noticeable as with their mother, but they all experience life-altering changes. Oates writes the family’s pecking order at a pace that begins slow and controlled, but builds up angrily. Out of all of the kids, the youngest son is the most sympathetic character. He is the black sheep of the family and at the bottom of the pecking order. The author portrays him with bone-deep loneliness. The middle daughter is a high school principal. She transfers her anger onto her students. She actually (spoiler) sabotages some kids by editing their transcripts so they will not get into their first choice colleges. The author has never shied away from writing on the dark side of human nature.

“Night” has been compared to Oates’ 1996 “We Were the Mulvaneys,” which is a saga about another family living in a small, rural upstate New York town, which happens to be where she grew up. “Mulvaneys” is one of my favorite novels by the author. I believe that it is superior to “Night.” An argument can be made that “Night” takes on too many characters with too many details. It can leave the reader thinking that each character’s story should be a novel in itself, making the story feel bloated. Indeed, the master storyteller’s latest novel (according to her website, this is her 59th) is long. Whether it’s too long is debatable—at times yes, at times no. Still, the poetic quality of the author’s prose is worth your time. When all is said and done, the thing about Oates, is after reading her work, it becomes impossible not to notice when you are reading a mediocre novel. That is the power of Joyce Carol Oates.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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