Joyce Carol Oates rarely offers a sunny view of human nature or society in her fiction, and “My Life as a Rat” is no exception. The novel explores vintage Oates themes of racial and class antagonism, male violence and female sexual exploitation, through the dark odyssey of Violet Rue Kerrigan, youngest of seven in a blue-collar Irish Catholic family in South Niagara, N.Y. It’s stuffed with plot and compulsively readable, as Oates’s work usually is; if it seems a little airless at times, that suits a protagonist gasping for air in various forms of confinement.
Although Violet insists, “I had a happy childhood,” that is not the picture her first-person narration paints. Her father, a hard drinker with a quick hand to punish, is “adored and feared in about equal measure” by his children. They’re embarrassed by their mother, fat and sickly after too many pregnancies, “permanently frightened and anxious, superstitious.” The boys grow up “quick-tempered and loud and impatient and bossy”; the girls are “adored” but simply less important.
In November 1991, Violet’s brothers Jerome and Lionel force a black teenage bicyclist off the road and beat him with a baseball bat; he dies a few days later. Swiftly picked up by police, the boys claim it was an accidental hit and run; their parents insist they’re being singled out because they’re white. Twelve-year-old Violet, who saw her brothers washing off the bat in secret, is anxious and confused. Neither her mother nor her priest wants to hear her confession. Lionel somehow senses that she knows and shoves her down a set of icy concrete steps with murderous intent. In school, questioned about her swollen knee and bloodied forehead, Violet admits she’s afraid to go home.
“These words, once uttered, could not be retracted,” she tells us. “In this way, the remainder of my life was decided.” Police find the hidden bat, and her brothers go to jail for manslaughter. As far as her parents are concerned, Violet is the criminal: “You never went outside the family — that was unforgivable.” She is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in a town 80 miles away; her father won’t have this “rat” back in his house.
With her characteristic storytelling brio, Oates limns in her first 125 pages a fraught family that mirrors a fraught community. The subsequent two sections take Violet through 13 years in exile and a lurid set of misadventures. Still hoping for reconciliation with her parents, she more or less sleepwalks through high school in isolation. The only relationship we learn about is Violet’s abuse by her Nazi-sympathizing ninth-grade math teacher, described in skin-crawling detail that includes pornographic photos and drugged drinks. The purpose of this creepy episode becomes evident when he is found out and Violet refuses to testify against him: “I knew better than to make that mistake again.”
Oates makes it painfully obvious that Violet is permanently scarred by her expulsion from home and has in some sense collaborated with her abuser because she thinks she deserves punishment. It’s excessive, however, to have her innocuous uncle suddenly start exposing himself to her and later in college to have Violet fall into another abusive relationship with a man she works for as a housecleaner. By this time, Oates’s point that damaged women are easy marks for predatory men has been amply made, indeed over-made. We see Violet slowly gaining power over her abusers, with ridicule in one case and manipulative games in another, but it doesn’t make us feel much better about her overall emotional health.
She continues to long for her family even though she fears reprisals from Lionel, finally released in 2005. (Jerome has been killed in prison.) Her parents remain unforgiving, clinging to a narrative of white victimization that Oates surely intends to have uncomfortable contemporary resonance. She positions Violet in contrast, tentatively trying to connect with the family of her brothers’ victim and becoming involved late in the novel with Tyrell Jones, an African-American high-school classmate she meets again in college; he encourages her decision to go home for the first time after her father dies. These gestures of racial reconciliation are touching but sketchy. Violet’s relationship with Tyrell lacks the particularity of detail that makes her reunions with her sister Katie and their ailing mother so bittersweet. Oates works hard to give her protagonist a conclusion that suggests growth and hope, but she’s better at bone-chilling confrontations like Violet’s climactic encounter with Lionel.
If Violet’s story does not show Oates at her absolute best — “The Accursed” springs to mind among recent titles — no novel by this formidably accomplished writer is without interest or reading pleasures. “My Life As a Rat” is thoughtful, provocative, and at times downright terrifying.
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, 416 pp., $28.99
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.