In The Region Of Ice by Joyce Carol Oates, 1966
The magic trick:
Creating an extreme but believable character in Allen Weinstein
The scheduling of this Joyce Carol Oates Week during October reflects my previously held view of her work as a slightly more literary counterpart to Stephen King’s more literary work.
This might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever thought.
You would probably assume that I’d learned something about short stories having done this website for five years. But clearly, you’d be wrong.
Well, this week I can at least rectify that little misunderstanding.
Yes, her stories often address the darker side of human nature. Yes, sometimes they’re even scary. But lumping her in with Stephen King? That’s just absurd. She is working at such a high level of artistry – so consistently over more than 50 years – it’s crazy.
So, let’s get to rectifying.
“In The Region Of Ice” introduces us to a nun who can’t seem to live both for God and the world. Is she too scared? Confused? Guilty? There’s a lot here to consider but not many answers.
The part that really drives the story, though, is the character of Allen Weinstein Jr. He joins the nun’s class and makes a powerful impression on her with his intelligence and manic energy. She sees something in him, perhaps something of herself.
He is a remarkably well-drawn character. His language is nothing but believable, and that’s particularly impressive because it would be very easy to turn him into a caricature. When he spouts off about literature, it’s immature in its desperate need to impress, but it’s also pretty smart.
I’m not sure I wound up caring about him as a character. But I was certainly fascinated, and, most importantly, I totally bought the way his plight plunged Sister Irene into existential crisis.
And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.
She did not like him, but she felt this sympathy, something tugging and nagging at her the way her parents had competed for her love so many years before. They had been whining, weak people, and out of their need for affection, the girl she had been (her name was Yvonne) had emerged stronger than either of them, contemptuous of tears because she had so many. But Weintstein was different; he was not simply weak – perhaps he was not weak at all – but his strength was confused and hysterical. She felt her customary rigidity as a teacher begin to falter. “You may turn your paper in today if you have it,” she said, frowning.
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