THE SACRIFICE. By Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco. 320 pages. $26.99.
In 1987, 15-year-old Tawana Brawley was discovered seemingly unconscious in the backyard of her apartment complex in Upstate New York with excrement in her hair and racist slurs scrawled on her body. She claimed to have been kidnapped and raped by several white men. The horrifying story quickly generated national headlines and drew the attention of notable figures including the Rev. Al Sharpton, but eventually Brawley’s story was determined to be a hoax.
Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, “The Sacrifice,” is based on the events of this case, and it tackles issues of race, violence and the murky waters of truth.
Oates is a master storyteller and prolific author of fiction, poetry, essays and plays, and, who at 76, continues to publish and teach. Her work, both celebrated and criticized, contains what The New York Review of Books once described as “a kind of Grand Guignol of every imaginable form of physical, psychological and sexual violence: rape, incest, murder, molestation, cannibalism, torture and bestiality.”
Oates is also an avid runner who composes plot lines in her head as she runs. In one of my favorite essays, she states, “Both running and writing are highly addictive activities; both are, for me, inextricably bound up with consciousness. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t running, and I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t writing.”
Oates grew up in Upstate New York, the setting of many of her books, and spent much of her childhood exploring the countryside and giving free reign to her rebellious curiosity. In the same essay, she writes, “I never saw a NO TRESPASSING sign that wasn’t a summons to my rebellious blood. Such signs, dutifully posted on trees and fence railings, might as well cry COME RIGHT IN!”
“The Sacrifice” is set in fictional Pascayne, N.J., a lower-class community on the banks of the Passaic River where no one can fish or swim anymore because of the pollution. It is 1987, and the town still bears scars from race riots in 1967.
Chapter One, “The Mother,” opens with a view of Ednetta Frye as she wanders the streets of town, banging on doors in search of her daughter, Sybilla, who has been missing for days.
“Any of you seen my girl, S’b’lla?” she asks. Ednetta “lurches” and “stumbles” from the Wig-a-Do Shop to the Liberty Bail & Bond as the women who have known her for years watch from behind curtains, relieved it isn’t them forced to do the searching.
The next morning a local teacher is awakened to the sounds of crying. She’s scared to venture outside her apartment building “because in this neighborhood, even on a Sunday morning you could poke your nose into something you’d regret.”
But her conscience forces her to follow the sounds to an abandoned canning factory where she discovers Sybilla, “hogtied,” beaten, covered in dog feces and close to death.
The traumatized young girl claims to have been kidnapped and raped by several white cops. Oates places us inside the head of the ER doctor who attempts to examine a resistant Sybilla and after reading the slurs scrawled on her body, introduces the first hint of doubt. “Right away I had to wonder — why’d anybody write words on somebody’s body upside-down?”
The use of alternating narrators provides a broad perspective, which allows us to see multiple sides of the story, but weakens any sense of intimacy. We never truly understand the intense mother-daughter relationship as Ednetta is kept at arms length. Sassy Sybilla is the most compelling character and the one who, as she is pushed and pulled between the varying forces attempting to control her fate, generates the most sympathy.
Halfway through the book, we are introduced to the Rev. Marcus Mudrick and his lawyer-brother Byron, who come to Pascayne to take on Sybilla’s case. Inspired by Sharpton and his role in the Twana Bradley case, Sybilla and her mother are overpowered by this larger-than-life part-time preacher who uses them to further his own drive for fame. With his “velvety words” Mudrick pushes money into Ednetta’s hands upon their first meeting and dubs Sybilla “the black Joan of Arc.”
“The Sacrifice” is a timely book. In her New York Times review, Roxane Gay writes that Oates is irresponsible in her depiction of this community and that differences are treated as caricature. In her response, Oates defended herself by stating that all writers write “about persons different from ourselves yet bonded by our common humanity.”
Oates is still that young girl running through the woods of her childhood, ignoring the No Trespassing signs of life, and her readers reap the benefits.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is marketing and communications manager at the Gibbes Museum of Art.