A powerfully resonant and provocative novel from American master and New York Times bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates
In this striking, enormously affecting novel, Joyce Carol Oates tells the story of two very different and yet intimately linked American families. Luther Dunphy is an ardent Evangelical who envisions himself as acting out God’s will when he assassinates an abortion provider in his small Ohio town while Augustus Voorhees, the idealistic but self-regarding doctor who is killed, leaves behind a wife and children scarred and embittered by grief.
In her moving, insightful portrait, Joyce Carol Oates fully inhabits the perspectives of two interwoven families whose destinies are defined by their warring convictions and squarely-but with great empathy-confronts an intractable, abiding rift in American society.
A Book of American Martyrs is a stunning, timely depiction of an issue hotly debated on a national stage but which makes itself felt most lastingly in communities torn apart by violence and hatred.
On Writing A Book of American Martyrs:
A Letter from Joyce Carol Oates
For years before writing this novel I’d been haunted by the vision of a mother and her two children going to visit the children’s father, whose place of work (was he a lawyer? involved in women’s health care?) was in a small Midwestern city. As they approached his office building, there would be an explosion, the result of a bomb that had come in the mail. Or, it might be that the mother and the younger brother had gone ahead, and the girl had lingered behind, perhaps to stop by a library to return a book. The girl’s family—father, mother, brother – would be killed in the blast, and the girl alone would escape to tell the story. The motive for the killing was impersonal, political: an individual enraged by the father’s activist/progressivist work. Whether the Willing would be described as “terrorism” had not yet occurred to me, for it wasn’t clear if the killer was acting singly, or in collusion with others. But always it was the girl, the witness who must speak: Naomi. Her name came to me early on, before even the name of her martyred father.
In time, it became clear to me that I must give voice to the “other side”—not just to the family of the assassinated abortion provider, but to the Christian-soldier assassin and his family as well. The perspective of Naomi was only one perspective, and of course there must be others.
Before the tumultuous American election of 2016 I could not have anticipated how “Book of American Martyrs” would come to seem prescient. Before the inauguration of a defiantly isolationist, anti-intellectual, anti-progressive and pro-“Christian” government with an agenda to undo decades of progressivist government—including legislation allowing abortion in all the states—I could not have anticipated how the experiences of my fictional families would mirror our alarming reality.
In our embattled United States, political/cultural enemies do not much listen to each other. One side—the “left-leaning”—has tried, but perhaps not hard enough, or effectively enough; the other side is vehement in opposition, contemptuous of a secular, progressive agenda that would grant full citizenship and equality to all ethnic minorities as to the “white, Christian” majority. It is very like a religious war, couched in other terms. How will it end? Can it end? Elections have become virtual war-zones. Thousands of voters have been disenfranchised, denied the right of voting. Each side is likely to draw its conclusions from (biased?) (fake?) news sources. It is possible to be brainwashed without having a clue of how, why such complicated stratagems are being waged against you. Each apparent ending is, for the side that has been defeated, just a biding-of-time. (In A Book of American Martyrs it is several times stated that the goal of the Christian pro-life movement is to overturn federal legislation—in time. In 2016-2017, that time seems to have arrived.) It is not possible to see the furious nature of the 2016 American election as anything other than a collective expression of revenge, violence—a kind of Greek revenge tragedy playing out over decades. Except, as the ancient Greeks well knew, violence begets more violence, and a victory can only be temporary.
However chaotic and distressing life can be, a work of art is a coherent structure, illuminated by a moral vision that is (one hopes!) not blinding or distracting but, in the way of the unfathomable aesthetic, consoling. The very last lines of my novels are invariably the destinations for which the first lines aim. Regardless of its length, breadth, complexity, the novel is an arrow shot straight to the heart.
Joyce Carol Oates
Bio: Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde (a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and the New York Times bestsellers The Falls (winner of the 2005 Prix Femina Etranger) and The Gravedigger’s Daughter. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. In 2003 she received the Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature and The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, and in 2006 she received the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award.
Charles G. Gross, a neuroscientist specializing in vision and the functions of the cerebral cortex, is Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. He is the author of Brain, Vision, Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience (MIT Press, 1998). His laboratory is interested in the role of various brain structures in visual perception and visual learning. Charles Gross and his colleagues described the properties of single neurons in inferior temporal cortex of the macaque and their likely role in object and face recognition. They also pioneered in the study of other extra-striate cortical visual areas. Many of his students went on to make distinguished contributions of their own. Among his many accolades, he was awarded the Distinguished Scientiﬁc Contribution Award, American Psychological Association (2004), National Academy of Sciences (1999), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1998).
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.