When Iris Courtney is a young girl, she is the only witness to a murderous street fight between Jinx Fairchild and a white man who has threatened her. A bond of passion and guilt is formed between the two—at first unstated, then slowly, year by year, gathering force until it must inevitably declare itself, and the consequences are fateful.
By Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is in full fire here. The motifs and themes of this rich, intricately textured realistic novel belong to the American experience of the 1950s and 1960s. But the vision of the life that animates them is so clear and unflinching that the past comes to us with the force of revelation. Once again, to read a new Oates novel is to enter a new world.
In a small city in upstate New York, in the decade before the upsurge of the civil rights movement, when racial prejudice seemed inflexible and habitual, we are introduced to two families struggling to advance themselves—the Courtneys, who are white, and the Fairchilds, who are black. The invisible color line separates them; each family is secure (or so it seems) in its own world, but there is a strange, virtually subterranean link. When Iris Courtney is a young girl, she is the only witness to a murderous street fight between Jinx Fairchild and a white man who has threatened her. A bond of passion and guilt is formed between the two—at first unstated, then slowly, year by year, gathering force until it must inevitably declare itself, and the consequences are fateful. Parallel to this story of extraordinary passion are the lives and struggles of the two families: like mirror images of each other, and of the country in which they live, each moves from a time of high promise to an age of embittered violence. Tragic and enthralling, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is one of Joyce Carol Oates’s most significant achievements.
“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift from the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It’s the buglelike cries of gulls that alert the fisherman—gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy white heads and tail feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.
- National Book Award: finalist
- New York Times Notable Book of the Year
in The Writing Life : National Book Award Winners. NY: Random House, 1995.
Where do you place your novel Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart within the body of your work?
The novel is very central to my body of work, as to my experience, and was extremely difficult to write. So much of my heart seems to have gone into it, I believed afterward that I would never attempt another long novel. The first chapter alone must have been revised, sentence by sentence, as many as seventeen times. The voice was elusive—for many months, hovering just out of reach.
How did you develop the structure of this novel?
Form is very important to me; I have to divide the work into a structure that has coherence in its various parts. It’s often divided in terms of years, certain spaces of time, and each space of time encompasses a development or movement in the narrative.
With Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, I wanted to write the novel in present tense, omniscient narrative, so that while we sometimes go into different people’s heads, we’re actually not in anybody’s head; we’re experiencing everything from the outside. I wanted to write it this way because I’d never written in that form. Why I chose to do it the hard way I don’t know.
What do you see as the novel’s theme?
It is very hard for writers to extract from the complexity of their material anything so clear as a theme; for instance, one would not want to reduce Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks to the theme of decadence. I think we write to give life to experience. I suppose my novel has much to do with the separation of races in America.
Where did your characters come from?
That’s like asking a composer, “How do you write music?” It’s virtually unanswerable. I think you can say they’re composite characters, sometimes taken from life, but more often invented.
I knew a young black boy who is in some ways reminiscent of two of the black boys in the novel, Jinx Fairchild and his brother. The novel is actually dedicated to him. I think he’s no longer living—I’ve been out of contact with him for more than forty years—but the novel is fiction. This boy did not commit a murder, even in self-defense.
We were students at a junior high school in Lockport, New York. Being a white girl, I was in some cases very interested in the African-American students, who were at that time called Negro students. I was brought in by school bus to the city—I was from the outside—and I think I felt that they were outsiders too, and there was a kind of alliance. I don’t want to make too much of this because I didn’t know this boy very well. He just had a strong personality. He was the kind of boy who could have been a leader if he hadn’t been perhaps a little too rebellious.
Iris is very much based upon aspects of myself, but I did not have an alcoholic mother and father; that part is fiction. I did know someone, a very close friend, who died of alcoholism, and who is the model for Persia.
SS I’ve been told that you hold an image in your mind as you write, that it helps you to focus—can you describe that process for me?
JCO In Because It Is Bitter, I always knew the ending, where Iris is trying on a wedding dress that she’s more or less inherited—a beautiful antique wedding dress. And she says, “Do you think I’ll look the part?” I always knew that would be the ending of the novel. Uniforms appear in the novel in certain ways. At one point, Iris has a Girl Scout’s uniform, and Persia wears ‘uniforms’ as a cocktail waitress, and there’s Jinx in his U. S. Army uniform . . .
SS And also his basketball uniform.
JCO Throughout, I had a clear sense of where both young people were going to end up. A privilege we’re granted, others of us, only in retrospect.
SS The images couldn’t give you any intellectual answer for, say, what to do in the next scene. They must get you in touch with the spiritual aspect of what it is that you’re writing. I mean, they don’t tell you, “Oh, in this next scene I have to do such-and-such,” or . . .
JCO But strategies of writing a novel do become, as you say, intellectual. There’s a point where you’re just thinking very rationally and calculatingly: I know that the scene I’m working on at home should not be more than ten pages long. So while I might have any number of rapturous feelings and a certain intuitive sense of where I’m going, at the same time I’m calculating, plotting. I have on my wall what I call a flow chart. I need to know precisely where I am at nearly every moment of my writing in terms of the structure of the whole. Something that will take place at the one third point, something at the two-third point, and then the ending.
“Song of Innocence”
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
from The Black Riders and Other Lines
- Booklist, February 1, 1990, p1050
- Publisher’s Weekly, February 23, 1990, p203
- New York Times, March 30, 1990, C29
- Library Journal, April 1, 1990, p138
- Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 8, 1990, N8
- Washington Post Book World, April 8, 1990, p1
- Chicago Tribune Books, April 15, 1990, p1
- Denver Post, April 15, 1990, E8
- Detroit News & Free Press, April 15, 1990, P5
- San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, April 15, 1990, p1
- Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1990, E4
- Washington Times, April 16, 1990, E8
- New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1990, p7
- Entertainment Weekly, April 27, 1990
- Houston Post, April 29, 1990, C6
- USA Today, May 7, 1990, D5
- Detroit News, May 9, 1990, C3
- Newsweek, May 14, 1990, p70
- New Yorker, May 28, 1990, p109
- Nation, July 2, 1990, p27
- New York Review of Books, August 16, 1990, p22
- Georgia Review, Fall 1990, p539
- America, November 17, 1990, p378
- Guardian, January 31, 1991, p23
- Observer, February 3, 1991, p55
- Times Literary Supplement, February 15, 1991, p17
- New Statesman & Society, February 22, 1991, p34
- Commentary, March 1991, p52
- Belles Lettres, Summer 1991, p12
- World Literature Today, Autumn 1991, p708
- Seventeen, September 1997, v56 n9 p202-203