BOOK REVIEW : Powerful Look at Love in an Intolerant Society : BECAUSE IT'S BITTER, AND BECAUSE IT'S MY HEART by Joyce Carol Oates E.P. Dutton $18.95; 373 pages

In a year when Philip Roth, once again, writes about the troubles he has with women (and calls it high art); when "white guys at the center of things" seem to have spun themselves into telling the same story over and over again, Joyce Carol Oates, quietly, and as part of her enormous ongoing work, has taken an amazing step in fiction.

In "Because It's Bitter, and Because It's My Heart," Oates takes as her subject America, racism, lost opportunities and "forbidden" love. This novel compares with Isabelle Allende's "The House of the Spirits" (the highest possible compliment) in that this novel begins modestly, with families and isolated characters; by the end, you see not only the pattern of a great novel, but also a set of reasons for why our wars have started and why our country is the way it is. This novel is ambitious in the highest, most disinterested sense.

The place is a small city in Upstate New York. The time ranges from 1956 until a few months after the Kennedy assassination. The characters come from three families, all struggling to find a place just above the poverty line and terrified of falling down, once again, into America's vast and hideous forgotten underclass.

Iris Courtney, middle-class and white, remembers a childhood that seems vaguely privileged. Her mother, Persia, was a stunning beauty; her father, Duke, had been connected with city government and was a kind of gambling dude. Iris has an uncle, a photographer, who has done a series of mother/daughter portraits that portray infinite beauty and the bonds of maternal love. But Duke is a loser, and Persia is a drunk.

Infinite miles away from them in the social scheme of things--but only a few blocks away in geographical space--lives the Fairchild family. They're black; they're respectable. They're entirely segregated. Mr. Fairchild is older and absent-minded, but Mrs. Fairchild has worked and worked so her two sons, Jinx and Sugarbaby, can "succeed" in this world. (The world they live in, in 1956, is totally boxed in and without prospects. But, still in high school, Jinx and Sugarbaby are basketball whizzes, and that seems to be the best way out.)

In a stunning opening scene, Iris and a girlfriend watch the Fairchild boys swimming in a garbagey river, "cavorting and preening, performing flawless dives when they wish, for admiring white girls." But it can never, never go beyond that, and everyone, everyone knows it.

Somewhere in this--far, far below everyone else in this enclosed world--the Garlock family exists, in a hell no one understands but everyone sees--and fears. The Garlocks have come up from the South. They are white trash at its most distilled. The women are toothless and battered, the children unwashed and numberless, the men violent and half-witted. (In this scenario, they, not the blacks, are the social gravel thrown into the machinery of American life.)

A crime is committed. Jinx saves Iris' life. In this way, they get to "know" each other, however marginally. The truth is that in any other "world," they might be described as madly in love. But in American society (well, just look at it now!), the idea that black males might be not just the most beautiful but the most noble members of our citizenry is so preposterous, so unheard of, so invisible that Jinx and Iris must go separate ways. Except for a few anguished sentences, their love is barely alluded to, barely mentioned.

Iris sinks into dire poverty and must dig herself out by denying her past, her "self." By the process of higher education, she makes herself a fit daughter-in-law for an academic family aptly named the Savages. All the Savages' art history, all their inherited wedding dresses, even all their kindness comes at a price. That price can be counted among the members of families like the Fairchilds, the Courtneys, the Garlocks.

The end of this novel is heartbreaking. It involves the separations of lovers, and a revisionist version of how and why Americans went to Vietnam. As Iris, in the last pages, gazes at a photograph of Jinx Fairchild in his military uniform on his way to a pointless war, she sobs out one last time, "I loved him," and then dresses up to marry Allen Savage.

One way or another, this novel is a companion piece to Philip Roth's lament about not being sufficiently loved by his women. A scholar should look into it.

Next: Lee Dembart reviews "The Doctor With Two Heads: Essays on Art and Science" by Gerald Weissman.

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