A dead man is the central character in Joyce Carol Oates' timely, monumental new novel "Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.," whose title echoes a gut-punching Walt Whitman poem.
In October 2010, John "Whitey" McClaren, the affluent former mayor of a small city in New York, dies of a stroke after an apparent car crash. Readers who have braved this daunting, 3-inch-thick novel's 800 pages know better. We witness McClaren pulling over to rush to the aid of a man of color who is being mercilessly pounded by two police officers, who then beat the daylights out of McClaren. Days later, he dies in a hospital, unable to convey the truth of what has happened to him to his bewildered family.
It is easy to assume, after this dreadful episode, that we are diving into a story about racial injustice, the pivotal issue of our time. And indeed that is a strong thread in this masterful novel, yet another piercing examination of American culture by the writer this reviewer considers our country's greatest living novelist. [A side note: Oates wrote this novel before the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, and this review was also written before those events, but has been revised for online publication.]
But "Night" is primarily the story of the dysfunctional McClaren family as it struggles to come to terms with its patriarch's untimely death.
Widow Jessalyn, a gentle, agreeable woman, plunges into isolated grief, then slowly emerges into a new life that includes a careful new relationship with an enigmatic man she has met near her husband's grave. Their love story is one of the novel's few happy threads, despite Jessalyn's tremulous sense that she is dishonoring her marriage with her late husband. Her labyrinthine path through grief is complicated in a way that may reflect the path Oates has felt in her own two widowhoods.
Whitey and Jessalyn's five adult children are brilliantly drawn characters, whose passions, politics, struggles and secrets fit well into the factions we Americans fall into.
Oldest son Thom, handsome, successful and mean-spirited, is the first to learn the truth about his father's death. He takes a twisted path in pursuit of justice.
Beverly, the second oldest, is even less likable than Thom. Her marriage is rotten, her teenage kids disrespectful, her drinking out of control. She is sure she knows what is good for everyone, especially her quiet mother, yet has no clear sense of bald reality, much less her own.
Third oldest Lorene, a high school principal, may be the story's least likable character. She is mean, manipulative, narcissistic and prone to self-hatred and self-harm.
The two youngest McClaren adult children are the most sympathetic. Sophia is a biological researcher struggling to come to terms with experiments on live animals and an affair with an older, married colleague. Virgil is a closeted gay hippie held in contempt by his family, except for his mother and sister Sophia, who love and indulge him.
The McClaren siblings have but one thing in common — they all loved their father, who in turn loved them all as best he could. That alone keeps them from abandoning each other.
Over hundreds of pages, their relationships play out in raw, authentic detail. Their encounters are revelatory, not just in the realm of family trickiness, but in the larger context of American culture, which these days is most painfully represented by people who lack the ability to step back and consider the other and his or her circumstances.
Yet their turmoil is not foreign to any of us. "Christ, life is a struggle," Whitey thinks in his dying moments. "Anyone who tells you anything else is a liar."
Much has been said about Oates' astounding productivity — year after year, novel after novel, some brilliant, some clumsily rendered Goth schlock (and yet, good reads, all). And here we have a new novel by her you could employ as a 3-pound doorstop.
It is brilliant. How blessed we are to have her as a novelist in our chaotic, confusing times.
"Night" is spot on for these times of racial divide, as well as in portraying the fractious family dynamic that many of us know all too well.
Three inches thick or no, "Night" deserves the top spot on your quarantine nightstand. Here's a fervent salute to Oates, our finest American novelist, for this one.
Pamela Miller is a night metro editor at the Star Tribune.