Though Joyce Carol Oates’ fiction is often marked by violence and evil, her 19th novel, “American Appetites,” is set in a world inhabited by people in various professions, where there is seldom violence and where the evil is subtle, and, in the minds of many, will be questionable.
It is the world of Ian and Glynnis McCullough, happily married for 26 years. Ian is a senior fellow on the political science faculty at the Institute for Independent Research in the Social Sciences, and Glynnis is a food expert and compiler of regional and ethnic cookbooks.
One day, Sigrid Hunt, a dancer, a young friend of Glynnis’, phones Ian at his office, incoherent, pleading to see him, accusing him and people like him of indifference to what will happen to someone like her.
Ian rushes off to find her and learns that she’s pregnant by her Egyptian lover and desperate to have an abortion. Her lover, however, has said he’ll kill her if she does.
Ian assures her that the choice should be hers and writes her a check for $1,000, which Sigrid says she’ll accept as a loan.
He doesn’t intend to keep this a secret from Glynnis, but, because his action will look peculiar, he postpones the telling until an appropriate time. The time doesn’t arrive, and Glynnis, months later, discovers the canceled check.
Enraged, she starts to drink and is drunk when Ian gets home. They continue the drinking during the evening, and at last, revealing that she knows about the check, Glynnis accuses him of infidelity. Ian tries to assure her of his innocence, and she, unconvinced, and with increasing rage, admits to having had lovers herself.
Suddenly, she comes at him with a knife, and Ian, with all his might, shoves her away. She falls backward, against and through a window, her brain sustaining severe arterial damage. There is surgery, a long vigil, and Glynnis dies.
Ian is accused of killing her. The indictment, the trial, the attacks in the press on Ian and his community, and the clues to Ian’s future--these constitute the latter and major part of the book.
There is thus only a single scene of violence, easily explained by the drinking and by Glynnis’ self-righteous rage. But although that single act of madness is violence enough, it does not characterize either the community as a whole or the life the McCulloughs have lived until then.
The evil that Oates explores is the evil implicit in the title of the book, “American Appetites.” The McCulloughs and their many friends have only appetites--as distinct from hunger--appetites for “gourmet” food, for wine, for sex, for success, and for parties that offer them easy escapes from aloneness.
They have no hunger, however, for personal greatness, as opposed to mere success, nor for altering the world outside them, where there is real, persistent, physical hunger.
On occasion they do commit themselves to something other than themselves. The McCulloughs and some of their friends, we are told, had once protested against an injustice done by the local police to two young men, but Ian admits they did so little that the victims wouldn’t know them if they saw them.
Even in their infrequent encounters with religion, there is no real hunger--Oates seems to say--for a transcendent being. In describing Glynnis’ funeral services at the Unitarian Church, she writes:
“If the church did not embarrass, neither did it excite. Ian thought it sad and perplexing that, drawn to Christianity as she was, in resistance to the genial humanism-atheism of her community, Glynnis should have chosen this church . . . over other possibilities. Did a Unitarian minister, Ian wondered, conceive of himself as a man of God, or was such a notion simply too extravagant and histrionic to be taken seriously?”
I would argue that choosing this church does not signify a less intense search for a transcendent being than choosing a more aggressive church, but Oates seems to use it as another indication of the blandness, even emptiness, of this way of life.
With or without this particular datum, it’s easy to agree that their lives are bland, deprived, devoid of either commitment or genuine love. They admit to being bored with buying and consuming, and to being lonely even within their families, and they search for romantic love in brief attachments. But they have neither the imagination nor passion to seize their strength and change these less-than-satisfying lives.
With the exception of Roberta Grinnell, Glynnis’ friend, who is capable of loyalty and love, and of Bianca, the McCullough’s teen-age daughter, who says she wants to do good in the world, I found it hard to care for any of them for long.
And yet, though I didn’t find these people likable, I never found them boring, thanks to Oates’ almost breathless narration and predictable fluency. The book kept me reading with interest right to the end.