‘Heat’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Heat by Joyce Carol Oates, 1990

The magic trick:

Considering the uneven, inconsistent nature of consequences

Joyce Carol Oates is never anything less than literary, so forgive me for including her in this potentially disrespectful slot of “Scary Story Month” on the SSMT site. But there’s no denying her predilection for examining the darker sides of human nature. She’s written a whole lot of messed up fiction involving messed up people doing messed up things. So, this week we look at a few such examples.

“Heat” certainly qualifies. In it, our narrator recalls childhood friends of hers – twin girls – who were killed by a young man in town. It’s grisly, to say the least. There’s a ton of magic in this story, though. The transition from blissful summer to death on the first page is a headturner. The way Oates brings the narrator into the story every so often like a diver bobbing up to the surface occasionally for air, it’s remarkable. The mystical ability our narrator seems to have to conjure facts from thin air is chilling. The whole story really is amazing.

I’ll highlight as a particular magic trick the way Oates continually hints at cause-and-effect through the tragedy. It’s almost as if these girls had death coming their way. But that’s not even it. It’s less cause-and-effect and more an exploration of the funny way consequences have of not showing themselves.

We see the twins misbehaving throughout the story – disrespecting authority, lying, stealing, mocking people. It seems harmless, until it isn’t.

Then again, we have Roger Whipple, by all accounts a good boy most days of his life, committing the heinous crime.

And even more puzzling, we have our narrator cheating on her husband years after the murder in a car on the same lot where her friends were killed. If that isn’t a loaded image, I don’t know what is. She goes out of her way to express remorse to the reader. She can’t even remember or imagine, she tells us, what she was thinking by having that affair. Yet, she appears to have escaped the mistake unscathed with her family in tact. Or at least that was the impression I got.

The world is weird. Some acts are forgivable. Some aren’t. Some catch up with you. Some don’t. It’s all here in this story.

And that’s quite a story on Oates’s part.

The selection:

The icehouse is still there but boarded up and derelict, the Whipples’ ice business ended long ago. Strangers live in the house, and the yard is littered with rusting hulks of cars and pickup trucks. Some Whipples live scattered around the county but none in town. The old train depot is still there too.

After I’d been married some years I got involved with this man, I won’t say his name, his name is not a name I say, but we would meet back there sometimes, back in that old lot that’s all weeds and scrub trees. Wild as kids and on the edge of being drunk. I was crazy for this guy, I mean crazy like I could hardly think of anybody but him or anything but the two of us making love the way we did; with him deep inside me I wanted it to never stop. Just fuck and fuck and fuck, I’d whisper to him, and this went on for a long time, two or three years, then ended the way these things do and looking back on it I’m not able to recognize that woman, as if she was someone not even not-me but a crazy woman I would despise, making so much of such a thing, risking her marriage and her kids finding out and her life being ruined for such a thing, my God. The things people do.

It’s like living out a story that has to go its own way.

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