By Joyce Carol Oates
SON OF THE MORNING is the story of Nathanael Vickery conceived in sin but blessed with evangelical purpose. For him, even as a child of five, God is near; as a young boy it has already become clear that he must heed the call of the evangelical ministry.
As his congregation grows to swelling point, as his stories about God and Christ become ever more compelling in their urgency, Nathaniel himself hears the voice of Jesus, knows the touch of the Lord, feels the triumph of submission.
And within that triumph lies the evil seed of pride. “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”
In this memorable novel, Joyce Carol Oates tells not only of the travail of a man who believes himself one of God’s Chosen and thus loses the way, but looks into the hearts of those Americans who today follow so avidly evangelism’s word.
The latest Ecco reissue of Joyce Carol Oates’ early classics: a fiery gothic tale of doomed fates and demons of biblical proportions in rural New York state
Nathan Vickery came into the world amid unfortunate circumstances. His mother, Elsa Vickery, daughter of an agnostic small town doctor and his pious wife, was brutally assaulted at the age of seventeen. The son she gave birth to in the wake of this event is brought up by his grandmother as a devoted Christian. At the age of seven, Nathan begins to see visions of Christ and embarks on a path as a prodigy boy-preacher, hurtling toward enlightenment while increasingly falling under the dangerous spell of power.
Nathan becomes the leader of an evangelical church, accumulating vast riches from donation. Each year, his visions grow more elaborate and grandiose. When he suddenly feels that God has forsaken him, is it punishment for indulging in the sins of lust, pride, and greed that he has long preached against?
Joyce Carol Oates’s talent for searing psychological inquiry and her eye for detail as well as her knack for indelible character portrayals and unflinching social commentary are fully on display in Son of the Morning. Fans of her work will be thrilled to see this early novel, the influences of which can be observed in later tour-de-force works like A Book of American Martyrs and The Sacrifice.
I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter things which have
been kept secret from the
foundation of the world.
Whisper unto my soul, I am thy salvation.
You have promised that there shall be time no longer. Yet there is nothing but time in the desolation of my soul. A vast Sahara of time surrounds me, and though the frightful minutes pleat when I manage to slip into unconsciousness, the release is so brief, so teasing, that to wake once more to my life is a horror. Am I a brother to anyone in this agony, I ask myself; is it Your design that I awaken to such a brotherhood . . . ? But I don’t want mankind, nor do I want the happiness of the individual without mankind: I want only You.
There shall be time no longer, yet we are deep in time, and of it; and it courses through us like the secret bright unfathomable blood through our bodies, bearing us along despite our childlike ignorance of its power.
Is this a revelation, I ask myself. Or an aspect of my punishment.
Save me, O God, by Thy name, and judge me by Thy strength and not by my weakness. If I have come to life again it is in obedience to the simple laws governing the sun, the moon, and the earth; it is not of my doing. My strength is like that of the mist-green reeds that do nothing but bend, with alacrity and cunning, as the violent winds pass over. Or do I think of the delicate young buds of peaches, or the hair-nests of the smallest of the sparrows. I think of the improbable precision of the eye: the perfection of the iris, the pupil, the mirroring brain. I think of my mother’s broken body and of my father’s swarthy beauty and of my own soul, which drains away in time, minute after minute, even as I compose my desperate prayer to You.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Booklist, July 15, 1978, pp. 1719-1720
. . . a powerful, painfully absorbing novel. With its unrelenting dark prose and tragic aura, this is Oates at the passionate and compassionate peak of her powers.
Victoria Glendinning, New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1978, p11
It is a hugely ambitious novel. Clearly well-researched, it could serve as a basis for the sociological study of the theory and practice of Pentecostal religion. It explores the phenomena of “revelation” and mystical experience with an extraordinary imaginative thrust. It poses, without answering, questions about the nature of Christ, the church as an institution, and whether there is God or only the desire for God, leading to madness; and whether he is a God of Salvation or a vast metaphysical appetite for souls, a destroyer. . . . the author enters into the heightened feelings and experiences of nearly every character in the large cast—except God’s. But the girl’s memories of the rape, Nathan’s relationship with God, his grandmother’s supernatural adoration of him as a child, his grandfather’s desperate stoicism, the hysterical fervor of the prayer meetings, and the physical hardware of everyone’s ordinary life, are all felt and described with a sustained virtuosity. The language, fittingly enough, is biblical, apocalyptic, intense.
Peter Wolfe, Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 3, 1978, p. 20
Surveying different sorts and degrees of religious faith, Oates balances this clamor by beginning each chapter with a prayer. The sonorous cadences of the prayers touch us on inner planes of perception, turning each chapter into a formal unit, like a religious service or spiritual drama. . . . Like Nathan himself, his story has a grimness that resounds in the deep places of our hearts. Its drive, fiber and heartbeat make “Son of the Morning” the big novel Joyce Carol Oates has been priming herself for. Few readers will miss its dread or remain untouched by its raw, bruising rhythms.
Carol Corbeil, Globe and Mail, March 3, 1979
The description of this public and private disgrace is possibly the most chilling thing I’ve ever read. It’s as if one is consciously experiencing the psychic gradations out of hypnosis what had glittered with visionary fervor fades, recedes, and resumes its shoddy appearance. . . . Oates is more interested in exploring the visionary world of Nathaniel than in judging its trappings. And in this exploration she is totally convincing. Even a cynic can, by being immersed in the lyrical world of Nathanael’s addresses to God, begin to grasp imaginatively the phenomenon of conversion.
Choice, January 1979, p1519
Now Joyce Carol Oates brings her formidable talents to bear on this subject; the result is a triumph. This is clearly Oates’s finest extended work since Them (1969). . . . Oates makes palpable both the coming of the spirit of God to the evangelist and the final terrifying loss of faith—a vision as grim as any by Ingmar Bergman. This is a disturbing, strong novel, one that clearly advances the author’s reach and craft.
Anne Tyler, Washington Post Book World, December 3, 1978, p14
. . . rich and dark and convoluted . . . the writing is so powerful that I felt literally pulled along by it. Moments in Son of the Morning will stay with me forever: Nathan’s grandfather’s reflections on his nonbelief; Nathan’s first glimpse of physical temptation; and his sudden, crashing descent into ordinary manhood . . . .
Kent Gramm, Theology Today, July 1979, pp. 286-287
In this novel Joyce Carol Oates . . . has written an exploration of the phenomenon of Jesus and his followers and the nature of love. . . . the theological and psychological probings in the book are too deep and complex, the reporting of visions and sermons too electric and convincing, the implications too perplexing for post-Jonestown thinking, for Son of the Morning not to be of searching significance for preachers, laypeople, and teachers of literature and theology.
Hermione Lee, Observer, August 19, 1979, p. 36
The danger for epics is that they may not be important enough: mighty canvasses need more than personal relationships to fill them. But Joyce Carol Oates has transcended more governable materials . . . and has matched her impressive talents for big scope and expansive prose with a subject as massive as her methods: the Second Coming. Son of the Morning tackles with redoubtable intensity the very difficult subject of a relationship with God, in a man who believes himself (and is believed by thousands) to be a Messiah. . . . The result is a raw, exhausting, over-insistent, but very remarkable novel, which achieves the extraordinary feat of making a backwoods Messiah entirely believable. . . . This is a book to be reckoned with as much for its variety and penetrations as for its big effects.
Greg Johnson, Southwest Review, Winter 1979, pp. 93-95
. . . it depicts truthfully the phenomenon of contemporary Christian sects, quietly revealing the childish emotionalism, the avarice, the hypocrisy; yet it presents in the story of Nathanael a genuine religious quest, one of such single-minded intensity that its result seems inevitable. Dedicated by Oates (or by Nathanael Vickery?) to “One Whose absence is palpable as any presence,” Son of the Morning is a novel which explores thoughtfully and unflinchingly the complexity of human emotion as it rebels against that “absence” by erecting an image tailored to its own longing. The novel’s saddest irony reveals that the image must always have two faces, simultaneously exalting and debasing the human spirit.
Janet Wiehe, Library Journal, August 1978, p1532
While Oates’ picture of militant evangelism is starkly effective and ironic, this is not one of her best novels. Recommended anyway; Oates’ voice remains an intriguing one in modern fiction.
Diana Newell Rowan, Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 1978, p. 19
It would seem that Joyce Carol Oates has produced another of her troubling behemoths— a novel brilliant in flashes, capable of the most delicate ferocity in nailing a gesture or facet of character to the page, but one which celebrates the grotesque and is ultimately inarticulate in its rage to encompass and describe human experience of the unknowable. Is this Oates’ own dangerous vein of hubris?
Julian Smith, Christian Century, February 21, 1979, pp. 190-191
Joyce Carol Oates’s ninth novel is an ambitious, complex puzzle. . . . What is one to say of such allegories after the events in Guyana?
Maureen Howard, Yale Review, Spring 1979, p. 438
What sustains Oates’s novels is not her journalistic coverage of migrant workers, Detroit ghettos, the crazed world of revivalism, but her own belief that these subjects must be realized in fiction. At her best she creates whole segments of American life with wonderful fidelity like the small-town childhood of Nathanael Vickery. . . . . It is Nathanael’s career that makes Son of the Morning falter: too many sermons so much like Sunday morning fare on television, too much mind-boggling prattle about salvation and the power of prayer, too much monotonous intensity.
Elizabeth Peer, Newsweek, August 14, 1978, p65-66
Joyce Carol Oates has here created a stunning first third of a novel that begins to exhaust and exasperate just as it careens into high gear.
Publishers Weekly, June 19, 1978, p92
Using the same hypnotic, almost mystical prose style she has employed so brilliantly in other novels and short stories, Oates explores here the innermost workings of an evangelical preacher’s heart and soul.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1978, p. 609
. . . a work which heats up every now and then with Oates’ infectious relish for dark thoughts and deeds, but which leans on her most unlovely trademarks—sloppily wrought-up language, fuzzily pretentious thematics—at unflattering length.
Village Voice, June 19, 1978, p82
Critic, October 15, 1978, p6
New Statesman, August 24, 1979, p277
Listener, August 30, 1979, p286