A reluctant hero in a culture of scandal

BROKE HEART BLUES By Joyce Carol Oates Dutton 369 pp., $24.95

With "Broke Heart Blues," Joyce Carol Oates does for high school reunions what "Huckleberry Finn" did for the Mississippi. The river had always been winding across America, of course, just as those anxious get-togethers have long been a staple of adult life, but great authors have a way of rendering common things extraordinary.

Oates's latest overwhelming novel, her 29th, courses along with the class of 1968 in Willowsville, an upscale town outside of Buffalo. The book's long first section is narrated in a remarkable communal voice. It's a flippant Greek chorus of high-school gossip that knows no logic but its own excited obsession with John Reddy Heart.

Like some modern-day young Shane, John Reddy rides in from the West, a mysterious, brooding 11-year-old, sitting on three telephone books so he can see over the dashboard of the Cadillac he's driving. Burdened with the care of his insane grandfather, two stunted siblings, and a smolderingly seductive mother, John hardly has time to notice the frenzy of interest he inspires in his nosy peers. "There was a time in the Village of Willowsville, New York," the story begins, "when every girl between the ages of 12 and 20 (and many unacknowledged others besides) was in love with John Reddy Heart."

Parents warn their children against this dark classmate, but John shimmers with forbidden excitement. He's the mythic "bad boy" girls want. "It was said that John Reddy's very shadow was darker, more vivid and 'solid' than ordinary shadows." A Coke can stolen from his trash becomes a sacred relic. His noncommittal grunts are cherished like Orphic prophesies.

When he's tracked through the woods, beaten unconscious, and arrested for shooting his mother's rich lover in bed, he becomes a national obsession. A song about him reaches No. 1 on the pop charts. The tabloids go crazy for the minutest details. A CBS TV movie luxuriates in the sexual exploits of his mother, a blackjack woman from Vegas who dresses only in white.

This dry satire of America's thirst for scandal is perfectly calibrated. The young men and women who hound John Reddy with their fantasies have every advantage money can buy, but they live in a desperately secular world. Riddled with anxieties about their value, their future, and their ability, John's frustrated classmates use him as a symbol of freedom and rebellion they can never know.

Just how inappropriate that is becomes painfully clear in the novel's quiet second section, a snapshot of John's life, told several years after graduation by an omniscient narrator. John dates a young mother and works as a dependable carpenter, one of several provocative allusions to Jesus that hover around him. Hounded by his girlfriend's ex-husband, John avoids the fight, refuses to let another control his reactions, and attains a kind of nobility that supercedes any of the absurd fantasies projected on him during high school.

The final section takes us back to his classmates' 30th reunion in a spectacular avalanche of love, death, resentment, celebration, and jealousy. Under the weight of all this desperate nostalgia, all their inhibitions collapse - along with the refreshment tent. As the party spins wildly, fabulously out of control, "scared kids' eyes inside rubbery adult masks" search for some kind of affirmation, some escape from the deadening clichs of adult life.

By the end, Oates has managed to individualize the various students in this sea of gossip. Now a famous movie star, a successful doctor, a minor poet, a real estate salesman, they're all paddling upstream against the currents of cynicism and alienation. Convinced that maturity has made them essentially inert, they cling to those subatomic connections forged with their high-school peers.

Oates possesses just the right balance of brutality and sentimentality to carry off "Broke Heart Blues." This is the sort of challenging, daringly original novel she's trained us to expect from her.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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