Some of our greatest modern writers--William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson--made it their business to focus on a fairly small plot of imagined national territory and make a world of that location. Yoknapatawpha County, Winesburg, Ohio--we've lived in these places that you can't find in an atlas.
Over the course of dozens of novels and story collections, Joyce Carol Oates has laid claim to a slice of Upstate New York bordering on the two easternmost of the great lakes. In her masterly new work of novel-length fiction, "What I Lived For," we find ourselves in a fairly large burg in that part of the world, an amalgam of Buffalo and Rochester as best I can, from a distance, make it out, a place that Oates dubs Union City, N.Y., and portrays as a great cross-section of urban American life, with all of its rusting factories and run-down downtowns, its dilapidated poor neighborhoods and rising suburbias, and the jarring juxtaposition of blacks and working-class Irish and other tribes that come together in the strenuous dance that we call local politics and business.
None of the attention Oates pays to the details of life in the contemporary city--the signs and smells and sounds and all other various sorts of detritus that go into the formation of our daily round in these urban pastures--however accurate it is can compare to the force and vitality of the main character she has created to prance around on this stage. Jerome "Corky" Corcoran--without him, we might as well have Eden without Adam, or, perhaps a better analogy, the Inferno without the damned or Purgatory without the souls struggling toward salvation. He is as marvelous an invention as we have encountered in our fiction in many years, as big as--or maybe I ought to say "as bigger than life as"--John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, another figure in whom the novelist sought to create the nexus of many of the currents of up-to-date American experience and culture.
Forty-three years old, a heretofore successful entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer on the verge of big money problems, ex-husband of one of the city's former debs (and still haunted by his difficult relationship with his ex-wife's daughter Thalia), Corky Corcoran is a horny dynamo of a young middle-aged fellow who can't keep his mind off sex even as he's trying to piece his life together and keep liquor at arm's length. He's one of those little guys who wants men to look up to him and women to lie down for him and he thinks of these matters--mainly respect and sex--just about every minute of his waking day. "Do women suspect," Corky wonders at one point during his adventurous weekend--Memorial Day weekend, 1992--that makes up the main time-frame of this novel. "What utter pigs, what filth we are. Do they have half a clue. . . ?"
Joyce Carol Oates has a pretty accurate idea of it, the inner life of a man who, like Joyce's Bloom, is a perfect average guy to follow around, l'homme moyen sensuel as they say in the law courts. After a stunning prologue in which we witness young Jerome's witnessing of his contractor father's murder by union hit-men, we meet the grown man at the beginning of the spring holiday, stuck in a traffic jam on his way to visit his mistress for a lunch-time matinee. What does he do but leap out of his car--Cadillac Sedan de Ville, by the way--and help the young cop in the middle of it direct traffic? And then he rushes off to make love to a wheel-chair ridden WASP judge's young wife, with whom he has been cavorting for the past year or so. Mastery over men, mystery over women--it all comes out here at once. As does Oates' mastery over plot as well as male psychology. That traffic jam has been caused by a jam-up in front of an apartment house where a suicide has just occurred, and that death will cause a number of moral and psychic traffic jams in Corky's life before the weekend has ended.
Oates' jangly present-tense paragraphs, in which she lays on information about Corky's momentary desires even as she manages to put his existential passage into the perspective of a lifetime, take a while to get used to. And because Oates, as I suggested, has much more than half a clue as to how men think and feel, the raunch factor may put off prudes on the right and Feminist censors on the left. Scarcely a page goes by when Corky isn't meditating in his own frenetic fashion about sexual intercourse, vaginas, buttocks, breasts and his own penis in a vernacular that takes us back to the bawdy old pages of Henry Miller and, beyond that, to a place that I mentioned earlier, the mind of Leopold Bloom and that greatest of modern literary locations, the Dublin of "Ulysses."
What writer in her right mind would dare to compose a novel that would allow the reader to compare it, even for a fleeting moment, to that masterwork of the genre? Only the audacious, pugnacious and triumphant Joyce Carol Oates. She's pushed her art to the limits here and shown us, to paraphrase old Hemingway, that she can go a few rounds with the champion of us all.