‘The Sacrifice,” a new novel by Joyce Carol Oates, is based on the 1987 Tawana Brawley affair in which a black teenager falsely accused several white men of raping her and leaving her in a garbage bag. Conceptually speaking, the novel recalls the original episodes of NBC’s “Law and Order,’’ ripped from the headlines and based on race. Those early segments often presented civil-rights activists as wrongheaded opportunists, and even though Richard Brooks, as assistant district attorney Paul Robinette, had the best black role on network TV, I felt bad for how regularly he was made to concede to the white guy in charge.
NBC ran disclaimers denying its shows were related in any way to events in real life. Oates, on the other hand, displays no such concern. “The Sacrifice” takes some liberties with character and incident; and names have been changed to protect guilty and innocent alike. But Brawley, her pathetic mother, and vicious stepfather are deliberately recognizable, as is civil-rights activist Al Sharpton, Brawley’s vociferous defender. Instead, Oates uses her imagination to explore the myriad perspectives of the people affected by Brawley’s allegations; that includes members of the area’s racist police force. Oates believes fiction can create empathy where facts cannot.
Told through various narrators and shifting points of view, the novel opens with a desperate Ednetta Frye searching Red Rock’s drizzly, dilapidated streets for her 14-year-old daughter. A local teacher discovers the girl, Sybilla, in an abandoned factory, beaten, hogtied, and covered in animal feces. Racial epithets in black marker are scrawled over her body. The traumatized girl claims she has been raped and kidnapped by several white men led by a yellow-haired cop. But questions emerge almost immediately. Although she has been tied up for days, Sybilla is not starving or dehydrated. She has not wet her pants. And the disgusting words on her body have been written upside down.
Like other residents of impoverished Red Rock, the Fryes are terrified to speak with police, much less press charges against them. The neighborhood continues to suffer the physical and psychological ravages of a race riot, brutally crushed by the department two decades before. Every family owns a private tale of police horror. Sybilla’s brutish stepfather, Anis, lost his beloved brother in the riot: He was killed by police for breaking curfew. Anis’s voice was left a raspy whisper after a police officer stomped on his neck. Oates traces the roots of contemporary Northern racism to the riots of the civil-rights era, just as contemporary Southern racism can be linked to the region’s slave past.
Without a doubt this book is timely (“Black Lives Matter! I Can’t Breathe!’’). If there was ever a moment that called for insight into the scourge of racist policing, this is it. Part of what underlies the tragedy here is not that a black girl might tell a heinous lie about racist officers, but that heinous lies about racist officers are all too easy to believe.
Oates has a sophisticated grasp of racial complexities: the way Sybilla’s teacher disdains her uneducated black neighbors, while seething that the school board refuses to employ black women full time. Likewise, a female Hispanic police officer feels superior to the community she serves, even as she struggles to be accepted as more than an affirmative action hire.
With the introduction of the Dickensian Rev. Marus Mudrick halfway through the novel, the story takes an awkward turn. Mudrick is the stand-in for Sharpton down to his flamboyant oratory, expensive suits, and questionable informant past. After he learns of Sybilla’s assault he launches a campaign for justice that ignites racial outrage and attracts celebrity support. Skeptical of Sybilla’s allegations yet ambitious for his civil-rights career, Mudrick and his attorney brother make Sybilla a symbol of sacrifice. Their plans implicate a vulnerable police recruit.
Disappointingly, Sybilla gets lost in this story. Oates seems downright wary of this sassy, sexy, young black woman who invites grown-up attention but is an abused child nonetheless. In contrast, Oates paints the most moving and indelible portrait of murderous, merciless Anis articulating in near operatic language the depths of his racial despair. I wish Sybilla had received such attention.
The novel really is like TV’s “Law and Order,’’ focusing on the police who investigate the crime and the Mudrick brothers who represent the victim. The rookie cop is more sympathetic than Sybilla and so is the policewoman, who earns our pity after being attacked. Ironically, these two officers are martyrs in a tale of police brutality, while once again the black activist emerges as the villain. I guess I should have seen that coming.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a literary critic and a columnist for CBC Radio’s “The Next Chapter.’’ She is the editor of “Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing.’’