“There is something so appealing, isn’t there?--so American--about beginning afresh.” So declares Abraham Licht, the latest embodiment of American exceptionalism run amok to spring from the imagination of Joyce Carol Oates, who has built her sturdy reputation as one of our more frighteningly accurate cultural pathologists. In “My Heart Laid Bare,” Oates pulls from her well-stocked shelf of influences elements of the gothic novel, the sweeping historical romance and even the social satire of Melville’s “The Confidence Man” to create a family of characters for whom the idea of “beginning afresh” is more than just a wistful notion.
The Lichts--whom we meet at the close of the last century and follow until the election of FDR--start new lives all the time, donning elaborate disguises and assuming fabricated identities as they grift their way across America, bilking people out of their personal fortunes and bringing it all back home.
Home, in this case, is Muirkirk: a decrepit, deconsecrated church on the edge of a fetid swamp in rural upstate New York, at once Eden and underworld. Feuding brothers and mysterious, consciousness-altering apples are just the beginning of the biblical tropes swirling about the Licht homestead. A patriarch named Abraham, a future leader of the people rescued from drowning as an infant, even a favored son raised from the dead: Oates daringly parades these unsubtle symbols before us, only to subvert them by positing the Lichts as a close-knit, generally functional (for a while, anyway) family that just happens to be engaged in an all-out war with God and all of his earthly followers.
Imagine the Waltons as antichrists. As he inculcates them in the ways of confidence scheming, Abraham Licht is always certain to remind his children that they exist outside the entire human race--not only socially and spiritually but, he insists, biologically--and are thus accountable to no God but that of their own making. “Out of Muirkirk, a lineage to conquer heaven,” reads an oft-quoted line from Abraham’s personal catechism, a sort of Poor Richard’s Almanack for heretical, sociopathic scam artists.
In this manner, Abraham teaches his children the rules of the Game, his name not only for the lifestyle of con-artistry but for the solemn philosophic principles undergirding it. The Game as played by Abraham is, in fact, just a mundane reflection of his passionate defiance of God: a supreme, not to mention supremely profitable, retaliation against man’s inherent baseness. For Abraham Licht does have standards: He chooses as his victims only those who, in his peculiar moral calculus, have it coming--usually pompous, well-to-do members of the establishment out to make a quick buck. His most successful cons--an astrological method of picking horses, a sham class-action suit brought on behalf of Napoleon’s “rightful” heirs--hinge on the victims’ smug acceptance that Licht is giving them, finally, what they deserve.
Oates clearly has a good time inventing and carrying out these capers, but as fun as they are to follow, they invariably end with somber object lessons about the terror fueling the American dream, a terror that even the supernaturally cynical Lichts can’t escape. “This is the American credo--I’m being cheated!” Oates writes in the voice of Abraham’s conniving, murderous son Harwood, though the sentiment will forever be universal and contemporary. “Somebody else, anybody else, is doing better than I am; deserving no more, but reaping far more than I am; life cheats me, or other men cheat me, or women; I have yet to receive my due, and never will.” Here, perhaps, is summed up perfectly the compulsion of the reflective American con man: There are no fair shakes, and the only way to claim the prize America has promised is to make a sucker out of your fellow man before he makes one out of you.
After years of watching him play the Game, Abraham’s older children are finally allowed to participate themselves, with dramatically mixed results. Daughter Millie passes with flying colors, pressuring the family of a prominent civic leader to pay hush money to the girl he supposedly impregnated before expiring; so does Elisha, Abraham’s black adopted son, who “robs” his father of $400,000 in horse-race winnings belonging to others. But friction between two other sons leads to a calamity that sets the stage for a series of betrayals that reveals Abraham’s children as all too human, despite their father’s fanciful beliefs to the contrary.
When a drunken Harwood bursts in on his brother Thurston, who is wrapping up a job involving a wealthy older fiancee, things go horribly wrong, and she is savagely murdered. Harwood escapes, but Thurston is arrested for his brother’s crime and is sentenced to hang. Posing as a British reformer of capital punishment, Abraham worms his way into the penal system and gains private access to his son, whom he carefully instructs in how to cheat the hangman.
Miraculously (many will say implausibly), the plan works--though Thurston repays his father’s gift by disappearing, withdrawing entirely from the family and its larcenous operation. Shortly thereafter, Millie and Elisha declare to their father their intention to marry, precipitating Abraham’s wrath and Elisha’s expulsion from the swampy Eden. One by one, Abraham Licht’s children let him down as their own rapidly maturing desires--for love, money, power or spiritual solace--overwhelm their need to please their stern paterfamilias. Even one of his youngest children, a musical prodigy deemed too sensitive for the Game, in time follows suit, painfully and finally confirming for Abraham that filial betrayal is the cruel residue of the American dream. To benefit fully from a father’s diligent preparation and hard work means, inevitably, to abandon him.
Novels of a size and scope this ambitious can easily collapse under their own weight, unless constructed by a skilled architect of tone and narrative. Fortunately, the author’s instinct is sure and solid, audaciously original but rooted in an idiom linking it with the towering influences of past generations. The ghost of Melville saturates “My Heart Laid Bare,” from its elaborately discursive sentences to its suspicion-laced curiosity about 19th century American reform movements. But whereas Melville sought to expose the hypocrisy of his era’s zealous do-gooders, Oates has assigned Licht the task of making America answer for its boundless energy, its mercantile fervor, its blind faith in the sanctity of making money: the very forces that made the Gilded Age an era of such astounding technological and economic achievement. At the story’s end, things come crashing down in the wake of a national pandemic of speculative fever, just as we knew they would. And there, finally, is the image of Licht: senile, paranoid but cogent enough to know that “beginning afresh” in the 1930s will require more energy than even he can muster. Oates has him perform one last satanic flourish, and then she leaves us to reflect on the startling contemporary resonances of her grand historical saga.
Richard Eder is on vacation.