MY HEART LAID BARE
By Joyce Carol Oates
531 pp., $24.95
'The Confidence-Man" was the last novel Herman Melville published during his life, though he lived another 34 years. It's a story so complex, convoluted, and unreadable that graduate students intimidate each other by calling it their favorite.
Mark Twain also struggled with the con artist character. He risked spoiling his classic by allowing two swindlers, the King and the Duke, to dominate Huckleberry Finn's escape down the Mississippi.
Both men realized that our vast free market economy is oiled by confidence, the trust between buyers and sellers, producers and consumers. And both saw in these relationships the danger posed by someone dedicated to exploiting others' trust. Exploring that character in a novel, however, proved problematic.
In "My Heart Laid Bare," Joyce Carol Oates has succeeded where those old masters struggled. Her latest book tells the twisting tales of a family of con artists at the turn of the century. Inspired and blinded by his egotism, the magnetic patriarch Abraham Licht concocts schemes as elaborate as they are daring, and in the process this exciting novel tells a tragedy of insatiable envy and misspent ambition.
Oates knows how to give her tale historic, even mythic weight. "My Heart Laid Bare," the author's 28th novel, moves through a half century of con games, staged robberies, patent medicines, fraudulent investments, and manufactured friendships in a style that's sometimes surreal, sometimes biblical, sometimes colloquial.
Oates delves into the Licht family and out into the culture of America at a time when inequities between rich and poor provided fertile soil for jealousy and false hope. By the end of this haunting story, Abraham and his family seem as real as the historical businessmen and politicians who move in and out of the Lichts' schemes.
An abandoned church near an omnivorous swamp in upstate New York serves as the family's retreat between crimes. This haunted bog once swallowed an entire Dutch settlement, but Abraham believes he can leave a dynasty of invincible children. "Memory is not an American predilection," he pontificates. "Where it cripples action, it's wise to forgo the past. For what is the past but the graveyard of Future." Tragically, his effort to exercise absolute control eventually alienates all his children. They scamper off, one a murderer, another a religious fraud, another a radical black revolutionary, each infected by their father's self-righteousness.
Through his many near-triumphs and failures, Abraham is a fascinating study of the self-mismade man. Nothing seems capable of dampening his eagerness for the next ill-gotten prize. One of Abraham's many wives asks him, "What do you want, why can't you settle down to one occupation, to one residence, to one life? - why, for God's sake, must you want so much?"
This is a breathless novel. Despite the convoluted nature of Abraham's shenanigans, Oates makes us endure only so much confusion as we can stand. She tempts us to guess the next twist, dares us to anticipate each gothic horror.
The ironic narrator, constantly peppering us with rhetorical questions, perfectly captures the cadence of rumor and speculation around Abraham, a.k.a. Dr. Frelicht, Mr. Lichtman, Albert St. Goar, Dr. Liebknecht. Each outrageous episode races through a symphony of lies and disguises toward a climax that promises wealth or death.
Although Joyce Carol Oates is recognized as one of the finest short story writers, "My Heart Laid Bare" reminds us that she's also a spectacular novelist.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.