With the arrival of A Fair Maiden, Joyce Carol Oates has penned at least 50 novels. (I may have missed one, or two, or a dozen…) This count doesn’t include her short stories, anthologies, poetry, drama, essays, nonfiction, or young people’s works. Somewhere out there, somebody may have managed to read all of Oates’ oeuvre. If so, this is surely an achievement, and leaves little room for other reading.
Those who wonder how Oates manages such an output—a question that comes up as invariably as comments on Joan Didion’s preternatural slenderness—would be well disposed to read Greg Johnson’s Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. Johnson was generously granted tremendous access to Oates’ personal life and working methods. Her incredible publication rate, which she finds unremarkable, is due to the simple fact that she works constantly.
While you are agonizing over your writer’s block, surfing the net, or pairing socks, Joyce Carol Oates is writing. While you are shopping, arguing with your sweetheart, shoveling snow, or sleeping, Joyce Carol Oates is writing. While you are recovering from oral surgery, as I am, Joyce Carol Oates is writing: Johnson documents her, post wisdom-tooth surgery, stuffing her bleeding mouth with gauze and sitting at her typewriter. A week ago, bleeding from my own mouth, I recalled this anecdote and chastised myself as weak, unworthy, a mere wannabe. Then, anesthetized from pain medication and the remnants of Novocain, I passed out.
Though Oates’ massive productivity leads to occasional uneven output, A Fair Maiden, at only 165 pages, ranks as one of Oates’ stronger works, a brief excursion into the kind of suburban horror that lies beneath the most bucolic of beach towns, here, New Jersey’s Bayhead Harbor, a wealthy enclave of old and new money sunning themselves and getting tipsy in lavish yachts, trailed by housekeepers and nannies. The nanny in question here is Katya Spivak, of South Jersey, a pretty 16-year-old from a low-class family of gamblers and thieves.
Katya is painfully aware of her family’s shortcomings. She herself isn’t a thief, not yet. Instead, she is a lost teenager, not quite out of childhood, all too familiar with drugs and the groping, clumsy hands of South Jersey boys. She is especially fond of her cousin, Roy Mraz (Oates is mistress of apt character names), who, between prison stints, works in an auto repair shop. Katya’s mother is a gambler who is indifferent to her children; Katya’s father, Jude, came and went, though lately he hasn’t come around at all, leaving his pretty blond daughter ripe for exploitation.
Katya has found summer work with the Engelhardt family, acting as nanny to three-year-old Tricia and infant Kevin. She is attentive and hardworking, as attached to her young charges as she is disgusted with their parents, Lorraine and Max. But Bayhead Harbor is a welcome change from summer in grubby South Jersey.
One day on the boardwalk, as Katya pushes Kevin’s stroller and clutches Tricia’s hand, she is approached by 68-year-old Marcus Kidder, a man of great wealth whose family has summered in Bayhead for decades. He is alone, the owner of a fine old house in the best part of town. He charms Katya into tea, then into posing for a portrait: a man of many talents, Kidder can sing, play piano, paint, and once penned and illustrated a series of children’s books.
Yet when Katya questions him about his past, or the many drawings of women lining his studio, his charming manner deserts him. She learns little of this man who is soon stuffing her hands with crisp bills for the pleasure of making her portrait. The money, the elegant home, the flattering attentions are all intoxicating, until Kidder does two things: one predictable, the other not. I will divulge neither: suffice to say that while one will shock the reader, the other won’t.
The final portion of A Fair Maiden cannot be said to resemble reality. Katya calls on Roy Mraz for assistance that goes horribly awry, with unexpected results, only to have a final meeting with Kidder more reminiscent of a gothic novel than a contemporary exploration of what happens when a wealthy old man engages an innocent teenager. Yet Oates being Oates, the plot works.
Any would-be writer would be wise to study how this woman has etched a place for herself in American letters, with an immediately recognizable, unique prose style that manages to incorporate many of society’s most absorbing issues—Chappaquiddick, Marilyn Monroe, the Oakland County Killer (an individual who murdered several children in Oakland County, Michigan during the ’70s, terrorizing the area. Both Oates and I lived there during the time The killer remains at large), JonBenet Ramsay, the disparity—and rage–between rich and poor, the right to die movement. That she continues to write, year after year, is testament to her talent and our great luck to have this talent among us.