A powerfully resonant and provocative novel from American master and New York Times bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates.
In this striking, enormously affecting novel, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of two very different and yet intimately linked American families. Luther Dunphy is a zealous Evangelical who envisions himself as acting out God’s will when he assassinates an abortion provider in his small Ohio town while Augustus Voorhees, the idealistic but self-regarding doctor who is killed, leaves behind a wife and children scarred and embittered by grief.
In her moving, keenly observed portrait, Joyce Carol Oates fully inhabits the perspectives of two interwoven families whose destinies are defined by their warring convictions and squarely—but with great empathy—confronts an intractable, abiding rift in American society.
A Book of American Martyrs is a stunning, timely depiction of an issue hotly debated on a national stage but which makes itself felt most lastingly in communities torn apart by violence and hatred.
SOLDIER OF GOD: LUTHER AMOS DUNPHY:
November 2, 1999
- Muskegee Falls, Ohio
- The Miracle of the Little Hand
- Defending the Defenseless
- The Lost Daughter
- The Calling
- A Soldier of Christ
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF GUS VOORHEES:
- Abortionist’s Daughter
- Memory, Undated
- Memory Undated: Flying Glass
- “Rot in Hell”
- Special Surgery
- “Would Daddy Hurt Me?”
- The White Box
- “So Clumsy”
- “A Baby Killer Lives in Your Neighborhood”
- Application, University of Michigan Arts and Sciences
- “False Alarm”: June 1997
- “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”: A Personal Testimony, August 2006
- “Like a Candle Blown Out”
- The Archivist Interviewed
- Law of Exponents
- Children of the Deceased
- Voice Mail
- “New Idea”
- The People of the State of Ohio v. Luther Amos Dunphy: December 2000
- “Mistrial”: Widow of the Deceased
- “Mistrial”: Children of the Deceased
- “Just for You”
- “No More”
- The Ant
December 18, 2000–March 4, 2006
- Broome County Courthouse: December 18, 2000
- “This Day You Shall Be With Me in Paradise”
- The Christian Girl
- The Great Tribulation: September 2001
- Bad News
- Mud Time
- The Stay
- Holy Innocents
- Death Warrant
March 2006–March 2010
- “Emptiness”: January 2007
- “Hammer of Jesus”: March 2008–February 2009
- “Jesus is Lord”
THE CONSOLATION OF GRIEF:
September 2011–February 2012
- “True Subject”
- Muskegee Falls, Ohio: September 2011
- Katechay Island: October 2011
- Fight Night, Cincinnati: November 2011
- The Consolation of Grief: February 2012
On Writing A Book of American Martyrs: A Letter from Joyce Carol Oates
For years before writing this novel I’d been haunted by the vision of a mother and her two children going to visit the children’s father, whose place of work (was he a lawyer? involved in women’s health care?) was in a small Midwestern city. As they approached his office building, there would be an explosion, the result of a bomb that had come in the mail. Or, it might be that the mother and the younger brother had gone ahead, and the girl had lingered behind, perhaps to stop by a library to return a book. The girl’s family—father, mother, brother – would be killed in the blast, and the girl alone would escape to tell the story. The motive for the killing was impersonal, political: an individual enraged by the father’s activist/progressivist work. Whether the Willing would be described as “terrorism” had not yet occurred to me, for it wasn’t clear if the killer was acting singly, or in collusion with others. But always it was the girl, the witness who must speak: Naomi. Her name came to me early on, before even the name of her martyred father.
In time, it became clear to me that I must give voice to the “other side”—not just to the family of the assassinated abortion provider, but to the Christian-soldier assassin and his family as well. The perspective of Naomi was only one perspective, and of course there must be others.
Before the tumultuous American election of 2016 I could not have anticipated how^l Book of American Martyrs would come to seem prescient. Before the inauguration of a defiantly isolationist, anti-intellectual, anti-progressive and pro-“Christian” government with an agenda to undo decades of progressivist government—including legislation allowing abortion in all the states—I could not have anticipated how the experiences of my fictional families would mirror our alarming reality.
In our embattled United States, political/cultural enemies do not much listen to each other. One side—the “left-leaning”—has tried, but perhaps not hard enough, or effectively enough; the other side is vehement in opposition, contemptuous of a secular, progressive agenda that would grant full citizenship and equality to all ethnic minorities as to the “white, Christian” majority. It is very like a religious war, couched in other terms. How will it end? Can it end? Elections have become virtual war-zones. Thousands of voters have been disenfranchised, denied the right of voting. Each side is likely to draw its conclusions from (biased?) (fake?) news sources. It is possible to be brainwashed without having a clue of how, why such complicated stratagems are being waged against you. Each apparent ending is, for the side that has been defeated, just a biding-of-time. (In A Book of American Martyrs it is several times stated that the goal of the Christian pro-life movement is to overturn federal legislation—in time. In 2016-2017, that time seems to have arrived.) It is not possible to see the furious nature ofthe 2016 American election as anything other than a collective expression of revenge, violence—a kind of Greek revenge tragedy playing out over decades. Except, as the ancient Greeks well knew, violence begets more violence, and a victory can only be temporary.
However chaotic and distressing life can be, a work of art is a coherent structure, illuminated by a moral vision that is (one hopes!) not blinding or distracting but, in the way of the unfathomable aesthetic, consoling. The very last lines of my novels are invariably the destinations for which the first lines aim. Regardless of its length, breadth, complexity, the novel is an arrow shot straight to the heart.
Joyce Carol Oates
Two hours, eighteen minutes were required for Luther Dunphy to die from the time he was strapped to the gurney to the time he was declared dead by the attending physician Dr. E___.
His brain was extinguished by degrees. His soul was extinguished by degrees like a panicked bird fluttering in a small space being struck by a broom again, again, again.
Into a vein in his left ankle the hot poison entered and once it began to stream inside it could not be stopped.
It was astonishing to him—he could feel the hot poison entering. Yet still he could not believe that it was his death that was entering him.
As the poison flooded his bloodstream his organs shut down one by one. Liver, kidneys, heart. His blood turned to liquid scalding lava. He was resolved not to scream but—he heard himself scream. A young raw boy’s voice. Oh God oh God help me. Oh God. He had been sweating and shivering and his teeth chattering wildly and now his temperature spiked. His heart was racing to keep ahead of the poison. He began to die in quicker degrees. His clenched fingers had turned white and were becoming cold, and his toes and feet were becoming cold. As his fingers became cold and numb they ceased clenching yet spread stiffly like claws An icy mist crept up his body like a devil’s embrace. He had not given sufficient thought to devils and demons in God’s creation—that had been a failure of his. He had not truly believed in Hell. He had believed in Heaven but not so much in Hell. He was astonished at himself, to think—Am I still alive? An then, he was not alive.
Neurons in his brain were extinguished like lights going out one by one—a string of Christmas tree lights. His most painful memories were extinguished. His birthmark was extinguished as if it had never clung to his cheek like a rabid bat. His happiest memories were extinguished. A very young child laughed into his face and closed its arms around his neck and was gone in that instant. Another cried—Da-DA!—and was gone in that instant. He was being lifted, with care—a woman’s hand gentle at the small of his back, and a woman’s gentle hand at the nape of his neck. A sweet smell of milk overwhelmed him. He was bathed in liquid heat and in blinding light opening his eyes wide, wider to take in such a wonder. Dr. E___ who’d been waiting outside the execution chamber in a private place as was his wont as a thirty-year veteran of Chillicothe not witnessing the horrific execution thus obliged to wait an unconscionable two hours eighteen minutes having to exit the premises to use a lavatory not once but two times though a few shots of whiskey usually slowed urine production, so Dr. E___ was humbled, humiliated and infuriated and totally disgusted, returning then to a further vigil trying not to hear the dying man’s screams of agony through the purportedly soundproof wall and the inane accusations of the asshole COs responsible for the lethal injection blaming one another for the fiasco arguably worse, more heinous and outrageous than the previous execution fiasco several years before; now grimly charging forward into the reeking room to examine the deceased man’s livid body stinking of bowels, blood, chemicals, horror with rubber-gloved hands checking the pulse of the deceased, heartbeat, no pulse and no heartbeat, shining a pencil-flashlight into the unresponsive eye of the deceased to declare time of death 9:18 P.M. and date March 4, 2006, and sign the death certificate in his scornful illegible hand.
If they’d said thank you doctor he would say sure. And fuck you but no one thanked him. He exited.
Shortly then the body that had ceased writhing and was now very still was covered in a white bloodstained cloth of the size of a tablecloth. The red-mottled contorted face with opened eyes and mouth agape as in childlike terror and wonder was mercifully covered.
The gurney bearing the body was wheeled to the prison morgue by the COs who’d administered the drugs. Shame-faced and sullen and swaying on their feet with exhaustion. And their uniforms covered in blood from their myriad mishandling of the needle. And in the morgue the fevered body began at once to cool. in this place of sudden calm, quiet. A drop in body temperature from 102ºF to 99ºF and then in inexorable in irreversible decline to 90ºF, within an hour 82ºF, eventually 60ºF, and at last 36ºF which was the temperature of the aluminum gurney beneath the corpse and the temperature of the very still air of the morgue.
Total darkness in this place and not a single reflection of even muted light. Even the faintest eclipse of light, there was none. The darkness on the face of the deep before the creation of light before the first day of creation and total silence, not a breath neither inhalation nor exhalation.
Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World, January 31, 2017
… it’s the most relevant book of Oates’s half-century-long career, a powerful reminder that fiction can be as timely as this morning’s tweets but infinitely more illuminating. For as often as we hear that some novel about a wealthy New Yorker suffering ennui is a story about “how we live now,” here is a novel that actually fulfills that promise, a story whose grasp is so wide and whose empathy is so boundless that it provides an ultrasound of the contemporary American soul….
To enter this masterpiece is to be captivated by the paradox of that tragic courage and to become invested in Oates’s search for some semblance of atonement, secular or divine. Regardless of your own faith or politics, the real miracle here is how, even after 700 pages, we can still be racing along, steeling ourselves for the very last line, a line we’re desperate to reach — but not too soon.
[terminology used: “pro-choice” “antiabortion”]
Ruth Franklin, The New York Review of Books, March 23, 2017
Oates is sometimes spoken of as a novelist of sensationalism, her Gothic and morbid tendencies emphasized. In fact, A Book of American Martyrs is a deeply political novel, all the more powerful for its many ambiguities. With its depiction of these families caught literally in the crosshairs of the anti-abortion movement, this novel may well shock and offend readers. But it fearlessly exposes not only an element of American society rarely seen in literature, but also the hypocrisies of those who would pass judgment on it.
[terminology used: “pro-choice” “anti-abortion”]
Steph Cha, Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2017
…“A Book of American Martyrs” is successful because [Oates] refuses to satirize or dehumanize anyone, even murderous foes of abortion. She spends more than 100 pages in Luther’s voice, and repugnant as he is, he has the full weight of a rich, complicated character, totally seen and understood by his author. That same immersive empathy extends to all the major characters, with wonderful results. Dawn — an unintelligent, inexorable young woman who calls herself “The Hammer of Jesus” — is a triumph of fiction writing.
[terminology used: “legal abortion”]
Alia E. Dastagir, USA Today, February 6, 2017
Martyrs is a graceful and excruciating story of two families who do not live very far apart, but exist in different realities. The tragedy is not the gruesome death of Gus Voorhees, but the ease with which the families brand one another as enemies.
The saga ends neatly, which may seem incompatible with the moral ambiguity of the previous 700 pages, but it appears, to this reader at least, a gesture of kindness. Hope amid horror.
[terminology used: “pro-life” “pro-choice”]
Donna Seaman, Booklist, January 1, 2016
A passionate champion of the underdog and conduit for the desperation and anger of decimated small-town America, Oates of the endlessly gathering eye and ear provocatively dramatizes the complex motivations and meanings of martyrdom both sought and unintentional, while seeking understanding and sympathy for all.
[terminology used: “abortion rights”]
Bridey Heing, Paste Magazine, February 8, 2017
Oates is at once critical and empathic, eschewing simple black and white moral arguments for a nuanced examination of martyrdom. Voorhees and Dunphy both become symbols for their respective causes, but by doing so they allow their families to be martyred by public scrutiny. The families’ broken lives and attempts to reclaim their respective identities are heartbreaking.
[terminology used: “pro-life” “pro-choice”]
Alan Scherstuhl, Chicago Review of Books, February 13, 2017
Luther is the novel’s center and starting point, but he’s not its protagonist. Oates is more interested in life after violence than in violence itself, and she alternates between Luther’s perspective and that of his family and also the family of the murdered doctor. The trial is dramatic, and one key prison scene is the purest of horror setpieces, a hair-whitener worthy of Wonderland but ripped right from recent headlines. Oates reveals Dr. Voorhees as something of a messianic figure himself, and the chapters from his survirors’ perspectives never offer a full-throated defense of abortion rights that matches the pitch of the denunciations we read in the Dunphys’ narratives. That’s an insight rather than an oversight: The Voorhees believe that reason will prevail even in the face of apocalyptic fundamentalism.
[terminology used: “anti-abortion” “abortion rights”]
Eric K. Anderson, Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies, 2017
The novel recounts this incident from a variety of perspectives—the lives of the victims and the shooter as well as the way it affects their families in the decades that follow. In doing so, Oates artfully presents a nuanced account of the tragic consequences of bad logic and extreme opinions.
[terminology used: “pro-choice”]
Martha Anne Toll, The Millions, March 15, 2017
What does Oates seek to accomplish? Each of her characters is so fully rendered that readers may find themselves overwhelmed in a vortex of incompatible ideologies. Perhaps that’s her point. If Luther Dunphy’s actions are the result of a mentally ill man’s tortured efforts to justify his own, violent impulses, he doesn’t come to those beliefs in a vacuum. Spotlighting religious extremism, reproductive rights, the risks inherent in hate speech, the death penalty, and the opioid epidemic — to name a few — Oates suggests we move beyond sound bites and tweets to consider these searing contemporary issues with nuance and compassion.
[terminology used: “anti-abortion” “reproductive rights”]
Okla Elliott, Harvard Review, February 7, 2017
A Book of American Martyrs is at once a family drama, a legal thriller, and a political autopsy of the United States. As its title suggests, this new novel by Joyce Carol Oates is utterly American—and it is essential reading at this point in our country’s history. Oates’s renowned literary powers and well-known obsessions—violence, gender relations, and American politics—are on full display in her latest work.
[terminology used: “pro-abortion” “anti-abortion”]
Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly, January 27, 2017
At 78, Oates remains one of literature’s most enduring and prolific chroniclers of American darkness, mining the murky seams where moral relativism rules, faith turns to fanaticism, and good families fall apart. In Martyrs’ best passages, she is mesmerizing—unleashing feverish streams of prose in great, incantatory swoons and laying her subjects bare without judgment or pity.
[terminology used: “righteous indignation for the unborn” “hero to the desperate patients he serves”]
Karen Brady, The Buffalo News, February 2, 2017
Oates is a longtime boxing aficionado – and her depiction of “D.D. Dunphy” in the ring is both brilliant and devastating, words that also describe “A Book of American Martyrs.”
[terminology used: (quoted from novel) “women’s reproductive rights” “rights of the unborn”]
Arlene McKanic, BookPage, February 2017, p. 23
Yet Oates finds a path to empathy, compassion and perhaps even reconciliation. Once again, Oates proves that she remains one of our most necessary authors.
[terminology used: “abortion is murder” “a woman’s right to her body is inviolable”]
Jennifer B. Stidham, Library Journal, January 1, 2017
Naomi’s and Dawn’s converging paths as aspiring documentary filmmaker and promising boxer are particularly compelling as each young woman battles her demons and holds the hope for some future reconciliation. The result is a timely tale of two divided American families and their respective journeys through the grief of losing fathers, sons, and husbands.
[terminology used: “antiabortionist” “provides abortions”]
Publishers Weekly, December 12, 2016
…Oates’s sprawling tale presents a sensitively painted portrait of the inextricable quality of grief and the weight of family legacy, showing how unexpected connections can bind people together in counterintuitive ways.
[terminology used: “abortion rights debate”]
Ayana Mathis, New York Times Book Review, February 19, 2017
Dawn Dunphy, on the other hand, is written with exhilarating energy and depth. Late in the novel she becomes a boxer calling herself Hammer of Jesus, a full and nuanced creature with a range of emotions and perceptions. Oates’s observations about Dawn’s psychic relationship to other women and her rumination on female masculinity and athleticism are so dazzling they warrant their own novel.
Religion in this novel is without redemption or utility; it is a disorder and does none of the things religion has done for people for millenniums: offer wisdom or comfort or a kind of psychic home. Certainly, the novel needn’t champion Christianity, but nor should it default to clichés about belief and believers.
[terminology used: “right-to-life”]
Eleanor J. Bader, Rewire, February 7, 2017
Nonetheless, by positioning Luther Dunphy and Augustus Voorhees as equally culpable in their intersecting tragedies, Oates misses a tremendous opportunity to support reproductive freedom. She knows better: At one point she lets one of the minor characters acknowledge that “abortion is inevitable—there will always be abortion. It must be freely available.” I don’t know why Oates didn’t pursue this line of reasoning more fully, but in failing to do so, she missed an important chance to denounce those who believe they have the right to impose their morality on the rest of us. It may be easy to pity the Dunphy family—they’re an extremely sad lot—but the political impact of their hateful worldview remains an affront to human dignity and the right to autonomous decision-making.
[terminology used: “anti-choice” “pro-choice”]
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2016
Oates masterfully renders tension and despair but not the complexity of her subject.
[terminology used: “women’s reproductive rights” “killing of babies”]
Image: from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.