By Joyce Carol Oates
A man climbs over the railings and plunges into Niagara Falls. A newlywed, he has left behind his wife, Ariah Erskine, in the honeymoon suite the morning after their wedding. “The Widow Bride of The Falls, as Ariah comes to be known, begins a relentless, seven-day vigil in the mist, waiting for his body to be found. At her side throughout, confirmed bachelor and pillar of the community Dirk Burnaby is unexpectedly transfixed by the strange, otherworldly gaze of this plain, strange woman, falling in love with her though they barely exchange a word. What follows is their passionate love affair, marriage, and children—a seemingly perfect existence.
But the tragedy by which their life together began shadows them, damaging their idyll with distrust, greed, and even murder. What unfurls is a drama of parents and their children; of secrets and sins; of lawsuits, murder, and, eventually, redemption. As Ariah’s children learn that their past is enmeshed with a hushed-up scandal involving radioactive waste, they must confront not only their personal history but America’s murky past: the despoiling of the landscape, and the corruption and greed of the massive industrial expansion of the 1950s and 1960s.
Set against the mythic-historic backdrop of Niagara Falls, Joyce Carol Oates explores the American family in crisis, but also America itself in the mid-twentieth century. As in We Were the Mulvaneys, a “darkly engrossing novel” (Washington Post Book World), she examines what happens when the richly interwoven relationships of parents and their children are challenged by circumstances outside the family.
The Falls is a love story gone wrong, and righted, and it alone places Joyce Carol Oates definitively in the company of the great American novelists.
The Falls were so loud now as to be mesmerizing, calming. Flying spray blinded him but he had no need any longer to see. Damned glasses sliding down his nose. Always he’d hated glasses, diagnosed with myopia at the age of ten. G.’s fate! In a gesture of which he’d never have been capable in life he seized his glasses and flung them into space. Good riddance! No more!
Suddenly he was at the railing.
At Terrapin Point.
His hands groped and closed about the topmost rung of a railing. He lifted his right foot, a slippery-soled shoe, nearly lost his balance but righted himself, like an acrobat positioning himself on top of the railing even as a part of his mind recoiled in disbelief and bemusement thinking You can’t be serious, Gil! This is ridiculous, you graduated top of your class, they’ve given you a new car, you can’t die. But in his pride he was over the railing, and in the water, swept instantaneously forward with the rushing current powerful as a locomotive and within swift seconds his skull was broken, his brain and its seemingly ceaseless immortal voice extinguished forever, as if it had never been; within ten swift seconds his heart had stopped, like a clock whose mechanism has been smashed. His backbone was snapped, and snapped, and snapped like the dried wishbone of a turkey clutched at by giggling children and his body was flung lifeless as a rag doll at the foot of the Horseshoe Falls, and dropped and lifted again amid the rocks and sucked downward amid churning water and winking miniature rainbows, lost now to the appalled sight of the sole witness at the railing at Terrapin Point—though shortly it would be regurgitated from the foot of The Falls and swept downriver three-quarters of a mile past the Whirlpool Rapids and into the Devil’s Whirlpool where it would be sucked downward from sight and trapped in the spiraling water—the broken body would spin like a deranged moon in orbit until, in His mercy, or His whimsy, God would grant the miracle of putrefaction to inflate the body with gases, floating it to the surface of the foaming gyre, and release.
The cruel beauty of The Falls
That calls to you—
“The Ballad of the Niagara,” 1931
The Falls at Niagara, comprising the American, the Bridal Veil and the enormous Horseshoe falls, exert upon a proportion of the human population, perhaps as many as forty percent (of adults), an uncanny effect called the hydracropsychic. This morbid condition has been known to render even the will of the active, robust man in the prime of life temporarily invalid, as if under the spell of a malevolent hypnotist. Such a one, drawn to the turbulent rapids above The Falls, may stand for long minutes staring as if paralyzed. Speak to him in the most forcible tone, he will not hear you. Touch him, or attempt to restrain him, he may throw off your hand angrily. The eyes of the enthralled victim are fixed and dilated. There may be a mysterious biological attraction to the thunderous force of nature represented by The Falls, romantically misinterpreted as “magnificent”—”grand”—”Godly”—and so the unfortunate victim throws himself to his doom if he is not prevented.
We may speculate: Under the spell of The Falls the hapless individual both ceases to exist and yet wills to become immortal. A new birth, not unlike the Christian promise of the Resurrection of the Body, may be the cruellest hope. Silently the victim vows to The Falls—”Yes, you have killed thousands of men and women but you can’t kill me. Because I am me.”
Dr. Moses Blaine,
A Niagara Falls Physician’s Log 1879-1905
By 1900 Niagara Falls had come to be known, to the dismay of local citizens and promoters of the prosperous tourist trade, as “Suicide’s Paradise.”
A Brief History of Niagara Falls, 1969
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