I have read many books by Joyce Carol Oates. She may be the first contemporary writer that I have accorded a special position in my mind. That's because she can create characters and situations that touch me, that I can recognize, identify. Characters whose lives sometimes make me cry. I don't usually leave a book behind if it was written by her.
This one differs from many of her others in that it is surprisingly short. The chapters are short and announced with full-page separators, making the number of words total even smaller than you'd think from hefting the book. She is capable of creating whole worlds full of intimate detail, thus drawing me in and captivating me. I can't say that about this one, although it does contain some elements of the others that have held my attention longer.
As most of her novels are, this one is set in upper New York state, and involves a young girl, then woman, whose origins are less than ideal. Oates herself grew up in a family of few means. Even if she did not herself experience the same kinds of pressures her characters do, she was undoubtedly close to those who did. The young woman in this story is naturally beautiful, similar to her striking mother, but she works hard to destroy that beauty.
Why? I think it all begins with her father. Something of a larger-than-life character, Ingrid Boone's father flits in and out of Ingrid's life, appearing out of the blue and then disappearing just as fast. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he learned how to pilot a plane and how to kill, and he uses both skills back in the "civilized" world. As a young girl Ingrid adores her father and can't understand why he keeps leaving her. Eventually it becomes clear and Ingrid's eyes are no longer clouded by her love. Yet there is always something there.
Ingrid's mother brings other men into their lives as a way of helping to stabilize their household. Usually she cares for them but we are not fooled into thinking she loves them unconditionally. Her presence represents a threat to married women in the different small towns where they live, and then move from. She has few women friends, many men.
As Ingrid grows and becomes more attractive, she becomes obsessed with friends. She takes to counting her friends in her mind, even as she suspects that none are true friends, that they talk behind her back. She finds popularity of different kinds, yet is always suspicious. An intelligent girl, she is nonetheless careless about her homework and thus is valued only by one teacher. This one sees the promise in Ingrid's poetry. When Ingrid wins a prize for one of her poems, she does not think the poem worth it, and when she is chosen to read it in front of the school the idea frightens her into committing a strange act. Poetry has not given her a way out.
Meanwhile, she digs at her face. Pimples, blackheads, mosquito bites, imagined or real. Her fingers cannot keep from seeking them out and digging, until her face is a moon surface. Yet it comes and goes: sometimes she looks like any other teen plagued with acne.
In this state she meets Enoch Skaggs, the leader of a strange cult of often-murderous followers who will do anything for him. Skaggs has three "wives" already when he takes on Ingrid as a lesser lover, to be loaned to other men from time to time. In spite of the dirty, unsanitary, often cruel conditions, Ingrid is drawn to Enoch like, as they say, a moth to the flame. She accepts his cruel treatment, the abuses and uses of others, until a time comes when she is thrown into the basement of the house where they all live, and left there with little food or other attention for many days, as punishment for some action of hers.
By then heavily into drugs, she has few resources. But she has some. Perhaps from memories of good times with her father, even perhaps memories of some small affection from her mother. Somehow, in spite of the hands she was dealt she has something inside her that wants to live.