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A vicious crime touches off a primal response

Special to The Times

Joyce CAROL OATES’ latest novel, provocatively titled “Rape: A Love Story,” is not, as one might fear, a misguided attempt to demonstrate that rape might be a form of love. For, indeed, the rape in question, which takes place on the Fourth of July 1996, is a sickeningly brutal gang rape in a deserted boathouse, where the severely battered and bleeding victim is left for dead.

Everything about the crime is ugly, horrible and vicious, including that the victim’s daughter, Bethie, 12, was also seized by the attackers, taunted and beaten, her arm wrenched from its socket. Tossed aside, Bethie drags herself behind a stack of boats to hide and witnesses the terrifyingly brutal assault on her mother. A passing motorist, spotting the distraught and injured Bethie outside the boathouse, calls the police.

Rookie cop John Dromoor, a taciturn, serious man, veteran of the Persian Gulf War, is deeply appalled by what he sees at the scene: the half-dead woman, her dazed child pleading for help. The love story that Oates tells in this novel is not a conventional one about simple erotic attraction. It is about the deeper, less easily understood kind of love that makes human beings care for one another, that kindles our desire to protect and defend the injured and the innocent, and that builds bonds of trust.

The prolific Oates has produced an astonishing and varied torrent of fiction over the course of her long career, but again and again she has returned to what might perhaps be called the primal scene of the first decades of her life in upstate New York. Her eyes are trained on the seamy side of lower-middle-class life, the ugly attitudes and harsh sensibilities that flourish like weeds, the cheap, transient pleasures, the violence and the severely dysfunctional families, but also some of the gritty resilience, courage and goodness that grow in the same soil. “Rape” is set in the declining industrial city of Niagara Falls, a different side of it than that seen by honeymooners and other tourists.

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Teena Maguire, the rape victim, works as a receptionist in a dental office. Still only in her 30s, she is a young widow who lost her husband to cancer. Teena is the kind of sexy woman who wears tank tops, tight jeans and high heels, who jokes with guys in bars, but she is hardly the Whore of Babylon. Nevertheless, lots of people are saying things like “She asked for it.”

The book is composed of a rapid-fire series of short chapters chronicling the crime and its aftermath. The writing is clipped, staccato, laconic. The narrative is filtered through several perspectives. One incorporates the kind of nasty talk and rumor flying around town (“She had it coming”) but juxtaposing it against what actually happened to the victim. Another takes us somewhat into the mind and heart of the self-contained, hard-headed, deeply caring policeman Dromoor, who makes it his business to do what he feels must be done. A third perspective comes from Bethie’s situation:

“Your mother’s testimony is more crucial than yours, the detectives have told you. Without her testimony, the case against the suspects will be circumstantial, weak.

“You don’t know why. You don’t understand why this is so. They hurt your mother so badly, beat her and tore her insides and left her to bleed to death on the boathouse floor.

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“Yes but this has to be proven. In a court of law.

“Not enough that it happened. That Teena Maguire almost died. It has to be proven, too.”

Bethie has gone to live with her grandmother, where her mother will eventually join them after being released from her long stay at the hospital. Bethie realizes the sad truth of their situation: “Grandma loves you, but Grandma can’t protect you. For how can Grandma protect you? She lives alone, an aging woman not in the very best of health herself, in her red-brick house ... a five-minute drive from the ... neighborhood where the suspects and their families live.”

Oates has come full circle, it would seem, from some of her early work, in which she suggested a certain complicity between violators and the violated. There is no longer any question here, no equivocation, as to who is responsible for this monstrous assault. Oates has always been a writer who writes out of her gut, her obsessions and even her confusions. In this book, she has connected with something very primal -- simple, in a way, yet profound -- a need that D.H. Lawrence declared in one of his poems to be deeper than sex: the need for justice, and she has shown us how that need is rooted in the urge to protect the innocent.


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