Review

Joyce Carol Oates tackles abortion in her powerful novel, 'A Book of American Martyrs'

Leave it to Joyce Carol Oates — full-time genius, part-time troll — to drop a 700-plus-page novel about abortion just in time for the most dramatic, divisive regime change in our country’s recent history. (Of course, the timing might be fortuitous — it has been a full year since her last novel came out.) “A Book of American Martyrs” manages to cover several of our greatest hits of political controversy: not only abortion but also capital punishment, terrorism, religion,  the 1st Amendment, the 2nd Amendment. Whatever your poison, this book will have something to get your blood roiling.

There are two American martyrs at the center of the novel, on opposite sides of the abortion divide. Augustus Voorhees is an abortion provider and outspoken “free choice”  advocate; Luther Amos Dunphy is his murderer, a self-described “soldier of God” who shoots Voorhees and his escort outside a women’s center in rural Ohio on Nov. 2, 1999. Both men are hailed as heroes and condemned as cold-blooded killers; both are willing to give their lives for their beliefs.

Obviously, Voorhees and Dunphy are not the same — one is a public health physician, one an unrepentant criminal. Oates never insists on putting them on equivalent footing, and she even goes out of her way to make Dunphy despicable independent of the killings. But as Voorhees’ daughter Naomi observes, “Voorhees and Dunphy were bound together, unavoidably. Through history the assassin has attached himself, like a blood-gorged tick,  to the individual he has killed.” Their fates, and the fates of their families, become mirrored and intertwined.

“A Christian is one who will sacrifice his life, in martyrdom,” says Dunphy, whose intense, religious narration makes up the opening section of the book. “I have long known this, but did not want to acknowledge it for it is far easier to hide within the family, to claim that the love and protection of your own family is your sole responsibility.” We never enter Voorhees’s point of view — his death occurs on Page 1 — but it becomes obvious that he shares Luther’s ardor when it comes to his own beliefs. Though his ultimate sacrifice is less voluntary than Dunphy’s, he practices in an atmosphere of terror, over his wife Jenna’s strenuous objections. At the time of his assassination, Voorhees is No. 3 on the  “WANTED: BABY KILLERS AMONG US” list kept by the extremist group Army of God (the former No. 3 having been killed only a couple months earlier). He and his family are living in different states, Jenna having refused to follow him to his latest dangerous appointment.

Both these men are husbands and fathers, and their sudden absence wreaks enormous havoc on their families, who never signed up for martyrdom. “No one wants to be brave!,” laments Naomi, the second of the three Voorhees children. “What you want is to be alive.” Jenna retreats into a despair that leaves little room for her mourning son and daughters; with Dunphy in prison, his wife, Edna Mae, burrows deep into her Oxycontin addiction while their four children more or less fend for themselves. Dunphy, of course, declines money sent by sympathizers on behalf of his entire family.

Oates, at least, is there for these fictional children. “A Book of American Martyrs” belongs to them — Naomi and Luther’s older daughter Dawn in particular — following their lives as they reckon with the assassination and its consequences over the next 12 years. These are the daughters of men fighting over women’s rights, left behind by their fathers. It seems just that they get a voice.

As a young adult, Naomi attempts to face her father’s murder by creating an archive of his life and death, which in turn becomes the story of her life (as well as a sizable chunk of the novel). “We were children made mean by grief. We were children with wizened little crab apple hearts and death’s-head grins,” she says, describing her and her older brother Darren. “I said, Why should they have a father and a mother? I hate them. Sometimes I said, Why should they be happy? I hate them.”

Naturally, the Dunphy children are prime targets for this hate — Naomi and Darren are acutely aware that Dawn and her brother Luke are near them in age. But while Naomi hates Dawn from afar, many hate her right up close. Dawn has no friends, and her classmates bully and attack her; for being homely, for being dirty, for being a daughter of Luther Dunphy. And Dawn is Luther’s daughter — fiercely religious and devoted to her father, even as she tries, with clumsy steadfastness, to find her own way.

This involves, eventually, a whole lot of boxing (a favorite subject of Oates’; one she writes about very well), while Naomi spends time with her famous academic grandmother in New York, discussing art and documentary filmmaking with various intellectuals. There’s some letup in the plotting once the murders and their legal aftermath fall off center stage, but the conjoined journeys of the martyrs’ daughters have a quiet, moving power.

Oates supports legal abortion, and the novel does end up falling on that side of the spectrum, despite a horribly graphic scene involving a dumpster dive at an abortion clinic after hours. But “A Book of American Martyrs” is successful because she 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.

This is a hard book to get through, even discounting its length; it’s painful and demanding and sometimes nihilistic, not exactly chicken soup for the ailing American soul. But with its wrath and violence, “A Book of American Martyrs” offers this teaspoon of warmth in these troubled times: that it is possible to be wrong without surrendering your humanity.

Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel “Dead Soon Enough.”

A Book of American Martyrs

Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco: 752 pp., $29.99

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