A novel by Joyce Carol Oates

“A painful truth of family life: the most tender emotions can change in an instant.  You think your parents love you but is it you they love, or the child who is theirs?”  — Joyce Carol Oates, My Life as a Rat

book cover
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Ecco Press
Year: 2019
Pages: 416

Which should prevail: loyalty to family or loyalty to the truth? Is telling the truth ever a mistake and is lying for one’s family ever justified?  Can one do the right thing, but bitterly regret it?

My Life as a Rat follows Violet Rue Kerrigan, a young woman who looks back upon her life in exile from her family following her testimony, at age twelve, concerning what she knew to be the racist murder of an African-American boy by her older brothers. In a succession of vividly recalled episodes Violet contemplates the circumstances of her life as the initially beloved youngest child of seven Kerrigan children who inadvertently “informs” on her brothers, setting into motion their arrests and convictions and her own long estrangement.

Arresting and poignant, My Life as a Rat traces a life of banishment from a family—banishment from parents, siblings, and the Church—that forces Violet to discover her own identity, to break the powerful spell of family, and to emerge from her long exile as a “rat” into a transformed life.


Book Covers


Excerpt

IF THE FUCKING BAT HADN’T BEEN THERE.

Because none of it had been premeditated. Because it had just happened—the way fire just happens.

Because it had been rattling in the back of the car, for months. Why’d he carry the bat loose in the car he’d liked to say For protection.

Sort of, he meant it. But it was a kind of joke too.

Because most things, fucking things in his fucking life, were jokes. Which included the bat.

Just his old baseball bat. The label worn off, he’d had for years. Couldn’t remember when he’d played baseball last. But the bat was his—his brothers had to have their own damn bats if they had a bat at all.

Never thought about it. Not much.

Rattling in the back of the car along with some empty beer cans and other shit, he’d stopped hearing.

Except that night, one of the (drunk) guys in the back snatched it up. And outside, in the confusion, he grabbed it away from whoever it was, maybe Don Brinkhaus, excited and aroused and swinging the bat because the bat was his and the bat was fucking wonderful, the solid grip, the weight of it, soiled old black tape he’d wound around the handle how many years ago. He’d never been a great batter, but he was OK. Easily embarrassed and discouraged and fucking disgusted, missing easy pitches, striking the ball not hard enough so it popped up like a little kid might pop it, fell straight down, rolled at the first baseman’s feet . . . Wanting to murder any asshole who laughed at him.

But now, no. Fucking bat wasn’t missing its target now.


Contents

Part I

  • The Rat
  • The Omen: November 2, 1991
  • Disowned
  • The Happy Childhood
  • Best Kisses!
  • Obituary
  • “Boys Will Be Boys”
  • To Die For
  • “Accident”
  • Louisville Slugger
  • The Little Sister
  • The Promise
  • The Siege
  • Because . . .
  • The Rescue
  • The Secret I
  • The Secret II
  • Final Confession
  • “Dear Christ What Did Violet Do Now”
  • The Revelation
  • The Bat
  • Safe House
  • Runaway

Part II

  • “Praying for Violet”
  • Exile
  • Sleepwalker
  • The Iceberg
  • Turnip Face
  • Sisters
  • “Mr. Sandman Bring Me a Dream”
  • “Dirty Girl”
  • The Stalker: 1997”
  • “You Are Not Wanted”
  • Dirty Girl
  • “Violet, Goodbye!”

Part III

  • The Scar
  • The Burrow
  • Valentine
  • Keeping Myself Alive
  • Off the Books
  • Rat, Waiting
  • Sorrowful Virgin
  • Damned Little Dog
  • Tongue
  • Uncanny
  • First Aid
  • “Maxed-Out”
  • The Misunderstanding
  • The Return
  • In My Mother’s Garden
  • Forgiveness
  • The Guilty Sister
  • Howard Street
  • Home

Interview

From The Guardian, June 1, 2019

You write in the acknowledgments that My Life As a Rat appeared in its earliest form as a short story titled Curly Red in Harper’s magazine in 2003, reprinted in the anthology I Am No One You Know in 2004. Why did you decide to develop it into a novel?
I had long meditated upon the life of a girl who had impulsively blurted out the truth under duress, within a few seconds assuring that her clannish family will reject her and that she will become an “orphan”; she will spend much of her life trying to return to her family, hoping to ingratiate herself with them. Over the years I’d accumulated many notes and scenes, and I had always known how Violet’s story would develop.

Many of your novels explore family conflict – this new one probes the tension between family loyalty and independence…
It does seem that the classic family unit is predominant in our lives, and that it is difficult, particularly for a young person, and perhaps for a girl, to break free of the spell of familial love – which can be possessive and stultifying as well as nourishing and enlivening. I have dedicated the novel to my friend of many years Elaine Showalter, who’d been disowned by her family when she married “outside her faith”. (This is simplifying a complex situation, but essentially that was the reason.) We are all bound to our families and it is a sort of fairytale nightmare if one might be disowned or rejected.

Did you want to show the importance of speaking out against injustice despite the consequences? I thought that was powerfully portrayed.
Yes, I think we must do this. I was struck years ago when the brother of the Unabomber cooperated with the FBI to identify his serial-killer brother, Ted Kaczynski – a courageous act – but was denounced in some quarters as a “rat”, as if family loyalty to a murderer was more important than saving the lives of victims to be! There must be civil and moral laws higher than the tribalism of the family, the clan, and the political party. Civilisation collapses when we don’t apply justice unilaterally. The US is undergoing this sort of slow collapse of ethics and civil law under the Trump administration, which prosecutes and pardons indiscriminately, depending upon political loyalties. It’s very destructive, particularly for younger generations, to observe adults behaving in ways that are unethical or criminal.

See the full interview in The Guardian


Reviews

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2019
4 stars
Oates explores the long echoes of violence born of sexism and racism in one young woman’s life in this deft psychological thriller.

Publishers Weekly, Aprli 29, 2019, p. 59
4 stars
Oates’s novel adroitly touches on race, loyalty, misogyny, and class inequality while also telling a moving story with a winning narrator.

Carol Haggas, Booklist, May 1, 2019, p. 66
4 stars
Oates’ frequent themes of exile, predators and their victims, racial conflicts, and gender violence coalesce in this psychologically and socially complex portrait of a young woman’s struggle as she loses her family but finds herself.

Julia Scheeres, New York Times, June 4, 2019
3 stars
Oates has long been preoccupied with male violence, racial strife and female victimhood. “My Life as a Rat” has all three of these elements in abundance. At the despairing center is poor Violet, flung into a cruel and indifferent world. Where she’ll land is the question that produces the book’s major tension, and the reader must agonize alongside her.


Image by Melissa Maples


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4 Comments »

  1. thanks, Randy!
    we are in the midst of a heat wave here. I hope— I assume— you have been spared smokey/ hazy air where you are.

    much affection
    Joyce

    Like

  2. Although I have been reading it for some time, this is my first time posting a message on this site. My primary intention is to offer much thanks and gratitude to the work of Ms. Oates, whose novels and stories I have been reading for decades. Being a writer myself means that I am an avid reader also, and I have spent countless pleasurable and insightful hours immersing myself in the lives of the characters Ms. Oates so resonantly creates.

    When it comes to stories and novels by specific authors, every reader has, I think, that “first love” — a powerful story or novel that leaves one smitten and hungry for more. For me, it was discovering Connie in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” So moved and intrigued was I by the story that I wrote a paper on it while I was a freshman in college, the results of which were life-changing. (It’s too long a story to relate here, however.) In addition to its archetypal heft and minute (and beautifully dizzying!) attention to detail, it was the manner in which Ms. Oates created characters of flesh and blood. Everyone is different, of course, but my way into a story (whether in my reading or in my own writing) is always through character: the gift art gives us of considering the world from perspectives dissimilar to our own is what has always sustained me.

    On this count, Ms. Oates is well nigh on a level all her own. It is very admirable indeed that a writer dares to be so honest and fearless about life, shining a light into the deep recesses of the human condition and, without flinching, relating to her fellow human beings what she discovers there. It has a way of broadening one’s perspective of the world and those who populate it, the result of which is that we are inspired to become better people through understanding and compassion. Really, that’s what the best art does, I think. It manages not only to entertain us, but to remind us as well that we are a species capable of feeling and exercising empathy.

    So I thank you, Ms. Oates, for all you have offered and continue to offer those of us who are mental travelers. Your passion, dedication, acumen, and humanity are well noted and appreciated. Because of your discipline and eerily astute observations of the world, you give voice to the Kelly Kellehers of the world, the Corky Corcorans, the Norma Jean Bakers, and “them.” And, oh, so many others!

    I am currently convalescing from cervical spine surgery, which means that I cannot write as much as I would like (sitting for more than fifteen minutes results in acute pain); however, understanding the importance of using one’s time responsibly, I have been reading and reading and reading. At present, I have been immersing myself into a variety of worlds and perspectives: E. M. Forster, Richard Powers, Stephen King, Andre Aciman, Kazoo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, J. M. Coetzee, Elfriede Jelinek, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, William S. Burroughs, and (of course!) you.

    I look forward to reading My Life as a Rat, and, really, whatever you create given a writers essential tools: paper, ink, words, and imagination.

    As my favorite epigram to appear at the front of any novel suggests: “Only connect.” Therefore, I thank you for creating a site to which we may come in the hope of making that “connection,” and to offer our respect and gratitude to one who has so clearly earned it.

    Warmest regards,

    John

    P. S. — How wonderful it is to see that What I Lived For is being made available once again. Everyone, I think, would benefit from spending some time with Corky.

    J.

    Like

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