Music

The Highway Is for Gamblers: Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen Take a One-way Trip

Treat Williams and Laura Dern in Smooth Talk (1985)

How Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen traveled out of a small town towards the great unknown.


Smooth Talk

Director: Joyce Chopra
Cast: Treat Williams, Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place
Year: 1985

Blonde

Publisher: Ecco (reprint)
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publication date: 2209-09
Amazon

We Were the Mulvaneys

Publisher: Plume
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publication date: 1997-09
Amazon

Director Joyce Chopra’s 1985 film Smooth Talk could have been a perfect adaptation of the difficult 1966 Joyce Carol Oates short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Certainly casting Laura Dern as Connie was ideal. As written, Connie is a nervous, gawking 15-year-old girl who “…had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” Her sister Connie, (Elizabeth Berridge), 24 and still living at home, is the submissive good girl. She’s suppressed and repressed her own desires in order to sit in judgment of Connie. Their parents (Mary Kay Place and Levon Helm) are calm and willing to give Connie space to explore boundaries, but frustration eventually boils over.

The film is mainly faithful to the story, such as it was on paper. Connie is a restless teen shy with her parents, curious about life with boys, and ready to become an adult woman, whatever that means. She doesn’t want to stay home and help with her family’s summer house renovation. She just wants to wander through the mall, see movies, and eventually just flirt coquettishly with the much too old Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), a mysterious greaser who seems to have wandered anachronistically into this small town. Arnold’s web is set for Connie, and in their final extended confrontation he’s parked in the family driveway, calling for her to come out and take a ride.

It’s in this final ride Connie takes, and whether or not she returns, that “Smooth Talk” takes a sharp turn from its source material. For Joyce Carol Oates, Connie is doomed from the moment she enters Arnold’s web. The difficulty in adapting this as a film rests in having to eliminate much of Oates’ narrative voice, and it’s a heavy burden for Dern to carry all this longing through facial expressions and general awkwardness. Certainly the now cliché '80s montage scenes in the mall are more padding than essential elements to this film. This story of female identity blossoming over the course of a summer unfolds like a fever dream. It’s deceptively calm, yet beneath the surface for Connie and all the teen girls of her time, the boys are lurking in the background, ready to pounce:

“…all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July.”

Oates was three years into her prolific writing career when "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was published in 1966 and she was carefully building a reputation as a fatalist, a naturalist, a writer whose characters existed primarily to fit her dark themes. Had there been no Edgar Allan Poe, Frank Norris, or even Theodore Dreiser, Oates might have remained a respectable Literature Professor who regularly published yet never exploded into the mainstream.

Aside from this short story, the novel Blonde (about Marilyn Monroe), and the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed We Were the Mulvaneys Joyce Carol Oates has primarily been a writer of high literature (however we choose to interpret that label.) As Oates ends her story, Connie is about to enter the vast unknown with the dark Arnold Friend. Was she about to be devoured? Would she return in one piece? She definitely returns by the end of the 1985 film, but the doom Oates creates at the end of the original source material is conclusive: Connie dared to play with fire, so now she was going to be punished.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is difficult not in content so much as context. Is Connie being punished for taking a bite from the forbidden fruit? Moreover, why did Oates dedicate it to Dylan? The urgency and danger of pop music permeates her pages much more so than in the movie. The most “dangerous” song on the “Smooth Talk” soundtrack is James Taylor’s 1977 cover of “Handy Man”. If the producers had been able to access Dylan’s catalog, the results might have been too incendiary. In an appreciation of Dylan, Oates published on the occasion of the latter’s 60th birthday, she seems cagey and defensive about dedicating this story to that man:

A one-sided admiration, clearly! The story was in fact suggested by a real-life incident involving a young teenaged girl and a “charismatic” serial killer in Tucson, Arizona, and not by Dylan’s song [“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”] Yet [its] haunting melody… beautifully approximate[d] the atmosphere of my story...

Oates would live to regret dedicating the story to Dylan. “… [T]oo many people have asked me ‘why?’ Who knows why?” It remains a trite dismissal on Oates’s part to not pin down the meaning of this dedication. At the time of its publication in Epoch Magazine in the fall of 1966, Dylan had almost slipped this mortal coil after an August motorcycle crash. The Dylan song in question had been in the ether for 18 months and seemed to serve as a final kiss-off to his old folk purist life. “You must go now take what you you need think will last,” he sings. Part defiant farewell to an old life and absolute focus on a new one, there seems nothing here about luring a young innocent out of her safe cocoon into a world from which she’ll never return unscathed. Nevertheless, by the time he reaches the fourth verse this ode to freedom and moving forward does take on a lethal tone:

Forget the dead you’ve left/ they will not follow you. The vagabond who’s rapping at your door/ is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

The moves Arnold Friend makes on Connie stay strictly within the confines of a seductive monologue: “The hell with this house!” he says. “…Be nice to me, be sweet like you can because what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?” Would Arnold Friend really be able to capture the heart of a gawky teenaged girl with evocative images and a haunting melody? It’s not likely. More convincing is the possibility that the voice Dylan assumes would sweep in under the cover of night and take any random desperate poor girl out of town. What both voices definitely shared was a determination to leave town at all costs.

If Oates was moved in 1966 to dedicate a story to Dylan, she might have done the same nine years later after hearing Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”. The studio version was all bombast and triumph, a sweet harmonica solo starting this urgent tale of a girl (Mary) dancing on her home’s front porch, swaying to a random Roy Orbison song. It starts softly, acoustically, harmonica and guitar with piano. When the singer tells us that he’s learned to make his guitar talk, he proves it. By the end of the song, after the declaration “It’s a town full of losers/ I’m pullin’ out of here to win”, the extended saxophone solo puts a triumphant stamp on the song’s story.

The acoustic version is more mournful, more heartbreaking. Like Arnold Friend, the unnamed singer here wants to lure the girl off her porch, out of her house, and towards salvation a ride down the road might provide: “All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood”. The song sounds like it could come from a resigned, somber Arnold remembering what once was and would never be again. It’s the highway that might have been for gamblers in the Dylan song, and a town full of losers in the Springsteen song, but the singers of both are convinced they can save a little girl from an aimless life.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” might not speak as clearly to today’s youth as it did in 1966. Oates has never been a comfortable writer, and her work is too often unremittingly bleak. Dedicating it to Dylan seems in retrospect an attempt to unjustifiably link it with somebody topical, somebody demonstrably threatening and dangerous. Oates has spent her career traveling down the same highways, drawing on the same themes of death, murder, obsession, and sexual politics. But no story of hers has had the staying power of this one.

Some have argued that Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, recorded in March 1965, was the apotheosis of his career, in that amazing 18 months of 1965-1966 when he went in search for and found what he called his “wild, thin mercury sound.” By 1975, two years into his recording career, Springsteen found a voice that captured the desperate feeling of being stuck in a small town, just waiting for the moment to slam down on the gas pedal and never look back as he barrels down the lonesome endless highway. They’ve all left in their wake characters who’ve taken ecstatic joy rides, long aimless and casual scenic drives, or, like Connie and Arnold, rides where the deadly ending is never in doubt.

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