A Must-Read Novel by Joyce Carol Oates

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              Joyce Carol Oates isn’t a gun nut, that’s for sure. But the way a gun briefly appears in her latest novel, Babysitter, makes this work something which every gun nut should read.

              I’m not going to discuss the novel’s plot because I don’t want to rob anyone of the pleasure of reading every word without knowing what the next word is going to be. But when Joyce Carol Oates describes how people feel and think about anything that happens in their lives, you won’t get it better or richer from anyone else.

              The scene involving a gun takes place with a man and a wife. He has bought a self-defense gun and pulls it out, shows her how to hold it, load it, pull the trigger and now she’s ready to defend herself and the kids in case someone tries to get into the house and do them harm.

              The wife, of course, knows from nothing about guns. And despite being reassured by her husband that a gun is the best way to prevent any trouble, she basically tells herself that she doesn’t feel ready or able to use a gun in self-defense.

              That’s it. The whole scene is one page in a novel which runs 432 printed pages front to back. But in this one, very brief episode, we are given an extraordinary insight into the whole, contemporary problem known as gun violence which the author of this brilliant novel, knowingly or not, seems to understand.

              I’ll return to Babysitter shortly, but first let me create a proper context for the appearance of a gun in this book.

              In 1986, the U.S. gun market absorbed 3,741,934 new guns, of which 1,655,387 or 44%, were handguns. In 2019, the market absorbed 10,998,608 new guns, of which 6,221,322, or 57% were handguns. Ever since the 1980’s, the gun market has increasingly been driven by a demand for handguns, because the only gun owners out there buying rifles and shotguns for hunting are old farts like me. Kids don’t hunt.

              Pistols are designed and carried only for armed, self-defense. Many revolvers are also purchased and carried for self-protection, including the revolver owned by the husband in the book written by Joyce Carol Oates.

              The husband seems to think that all he needs to do is show the wife how the gun works, and she’ll be able to use it to protect herself and the kids when they are home.

              The wife knows better. In just a couple of paragraphs, Joyce Carol Oates conveys the woman’s combination of fear, doubt, and anxiety which she feels just by looking at a gun.

              These emotions were exactly what I observed in the behavior of more than a thousand women who took the safety course that my state mandated in order to get licensed to buy, own or carry a gun. The women who took my course were either wives or girlfriends of men who owned guns, and they were getting licensed because my state (Massachusetts) has the toughest gun access law of all 50 states.

              The law basically says that every adult in the household must be licensed to access guns if any member of the household wants to keep guns in the home. Of these thousand women or so who took the safety course, the number who were going to buy their own guns was less than ten.

The women who took the course showed up when their husbands or partners also took the course. Most of the seven thousand enrollees in the course were men, and most of the men showed up for the course with other men.

I required every student in the course to shoot some rounds with a 22-caliber Ruger pistol, just to get the feeling for what happens when a gun is shot off. The male students couldn’t wait to get down to the range and fire away. The women were reluctant at best to shoot a live gun, at worst they were so frightened that they either started crying when the gun kicked back after firing or dropped the gun.

I don’t know how many of the men who got licensed as gun owners ever took the time and the trouble to go to a range on a frequent basis in order to develop and then maintain the proficiency needed to use a gun in self-defense. But if they thought that just by dint of owning a gun they could use a gun properly for self-defense, they were wrong.

In Babysitter, the husband simply assumes that his wife will be able to use a gun for self-defense because he tells her how to use the gun if someone tries to break into their home. And this totally delusional attitude on the part of the husband is described perfectly by Joyce Carol Oates.

It goes without saying that I loved this book, and you’ll love it too.

Police Violence From A Novelist’s View.

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              I conduct lethal-force certifications for law enforcement agencies, so I know lots of cops. Right now, I wouldn’t want to be a cop because for many of the people who are demonstrating against police violence, it’s payback time.

              I just finished reading a new novel by Joyce Carol Oates, NIGHT. SLEEP. DEATH. The STARS, which is a stanza from a Whitman poem.I love her books. I read some of them again and again. I write non-fiction but I read fiction and her works are always at the top of my list.

              This novel opens with John Earle ‘Whitey’ McLaren driving down the highway outside of Hammond, New York and passing two cops who are whomping the shit out of some Indian guy. Later we find out that the Indian guy is a doctor at the local hospital.

McLaren pulls over on the shoulder, starts walking towards the cops to find out what’s going on, and the cops start whomping the shit out of him too. They knock him down, hit him with multiple tasers, and the sixty-seven year-old former town Mayor who has just attended a meting of the Trustees of the Public Library, suffers a stroke from which he succumbs ten days’ later without ever regaining full consciousness.

              He leaves behind a widow, Jessalyn, and five grown children, along with a successful business run by his eldest child, Thom. There are three daughters – Beverly, Lorene, Sofia, and another son named Virgil.  The novel is another example of what makes Joyce Carol Oates such a remarkable storyteller, which is her uncanny ability to create a portrait of a family whose members are in some way or another adrift from each other and from themselves.

              I am not a literary critic of any sort, so I’m going to leave an analysis of the book’s text to others who are much more versant in judging fiction than myself. What I want to talk about is the incident of police brutality which starts the book off, given how this issue has come to dominate so much of our public discussion today.

              There is no question that much of the anger and public, mass demonstrations following the death of George Floyd was due to the response, or I should say, lack of response from Donald Trump. Even Rush Limbaugh came out he next day and expressed shock and concern about the video showing  Black man on the ground with a White cop using his boot to crush the poor guy’s neck.

              It took Trump almost a week to say anything about the event, no doubt he was waiting to hear the reaction from a couple of focus groups before saying anything about what took place. In fact, what he began doing almost immediately was going back to the usual racist playbook which included re-tweeting the most disgusting comments from Black conservatives like Candace Owens.

              But now back to the novel by Oates. What happens is that the eldest son decides to go after the cops who killed his father and runs up against the usual resistance of local officials and the police union to redress the situation at all. I’m not going to go into details because the novel needs to be read word-for-word, but what happens in this instance is probably what happens in most instances of police brutality when the cops do something stupid or brutal in any town and nobody’s standing there with a video camera to record the details.

              The strength of this novel lies in the endless twists and turns of family members whose lives all change when the individual around whom the family created and maintained its identity suddenly disappears. But the issue of police brutality is also handled in a deft and nuanced way because we need to remember that when something unnecessarily violent happens to anyone, the violence reverberates far beyond the immediate circle of family and friends.

A Great Gun Story From Joyce Carol Oates


If you want to read a remarkable piece of writing which really captures what guns are all about, see if you can pick up a collection of stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Faithless, and read ‘Gunlove,’ which I read again last night. If there’s another piece of fiction out there which brought home to me why guns are such a problematic issue in American life, I haven’t seen it yet. And when all is really said and done, the ability of someone with this writer’s remarkable talents to capture the most profound dimensions of what guns represent, goes far beyond what we get from even the most authoritative scholarly research.

The story is narrated in first-person by a young woman who is recalling certain events and people over the course of her life, all of which involve the use of guns. A gun is brandished, a guns is used for self-defense, a gun is played with, a gun is taken to a shooting range, a gun is carried around for protection, a gun figures in a suicide or maybe it was an accident. In other words, every vignette which together creates the story’s text, gives us a quick portrait of all the different ways that Americans think about using guns.

And then there are the guns themselves, described and even named: Bauer 25-caliber pocket pistol, 12-gauge Remington shotgun, a Saturday-night special Arcadia, a Colt 45-caliber Army gun, a Winchester 22-caliber rifle, a Sterling pistol, a 44-magnum, a Colt Detective Special, even a Glock! And the fact that the Glock is actually an AMT pistol makes the whole thing even better because the ditz-brain narrator of this story, who spent her college years at Vassar continuously stoned and/or high, really didn’t know one gun from another. Which is exactly the point. It doesn’t really matter which gun is which.

These guns float through the life of the story’s narrator in the same quick and easy way that her relatives, friends and lovers come and go. At one point, she appears to be getting serious about shooting – goes to a shooting range in Staten Island but finds it difficult to actually pull the trigger and hit the target downrange. On the other hand, she has no trouble buying at last four different oils and cleaning fluids, cleaning patches and rags, various gunsmith tools and other crap. She easily spends a hundred bucks or more on this stuff, takes it back to her apartment, but never actually cleans her gun. She’s the type of customer that the gun business loves.

At the end of the story, she meets up with a sometime lover who gives her a remembrance gift because after a final embrace (in the middle of Central Park, no less) he’s evidently going to clear out of town. She goes back to her apartment, unwraps the package and of course it’s a gun – a 9mm Glock. She thinks for a minute about possibly giving it up but she can’t. She ‘loves’ her gun.

Of course the gun which she loves isn’t a Glock at all. She describes it as having a stainless steel frame but Glock never produced any guns except with polymer frames. So she has absolutely no idea what she is talking about but she’ll never get rid of this gun. Perfect.

By the end of this story, what you come to understand is that this ditz-brain has absolutely no idea why she loves her guns. But one reason for her obsessive gun infatuation which is never mentioned is any concern for her 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’ She couldn’t care less about the 2nd Amendment.

And here’s the dirty, little secret about guns: Nobody else cares about the 2nd Amendment. Gun owners will tell you in no uncertain terms that they support the 2nd Amendment because otherwise they might have to admit that their decision to own this lethal consumer product has nothing to do with any kind of reality or necessity at all. They love their guns because guns are fun. And if you don’t believe me, just read this penetrating story by Joyce Carol Oates.

Download and read the story here.

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