All the Good People I’ve Left Behind by Joyce Carol Oates. Black Sparrow Press, 227 pp. $4.50.
If I had not been reading this book for a review, I might have put it down after the first couple of stories. The first, for instance, concerns a woman who for a time in her mid-twenties is conducting a furtive love affair with a married man and, in successive trips to the hospital, is watching her great aunt die. Her lover is a mess, tiresomely self-deprecating, begging forgiveness for imagined offenses, fearful of being discovered in his adultery. Something in the protagonist, whose name is Annie, holds back from experience and fears it. It is Annie who fears death — her aunt faces it quite bravely — and, on an afternoon meeting with her lover, she imagines a wonderful freedom in leaping from a high rock into the river, but knows she will never do it. When she actually sees some teenagers taking that leap, she is hysterically frightened, and while the story seems to be about her disappointment at her lover’s failure to stop them, it is really about Annie’s fears: of the effortless and joyful leap into life that the teenagers take, of the fearless leap into death that her aunt is taking. Fearful of both, Annie would seem not to have much left.
I believe that such people exist — though aspects of “The Leap” do not ring true to me — but I do not much enjoy reading about them. I cannot argue with the art with which they are portrayed, but I find their neurotic intensity and self-hatred boring. I understand that in seeing their fears we may be seeing only more intense versions of our own, but I have wearied of the many Hamlets of modern literature. I would rather read about the people who are not afraid to leap.
Yet if I had given up on All the Good People I’ve Left Behind I would have missed out on one of the most arresting volumes of stories that I have read in some time. Each story seems better than the last (except for the second, which struck me as fragmentary and confused), and perhaps the most moving aspect of the stories is the way they work together as a whole. Joyce Carol Oates has an astounding ability to enter into the lives of a variety of characters. She writes with an intensity that is a match for Annie’s, but it is not at all neurotic and removed: she seems to have lived the lives she writes about. There is very little of the author in these stories; the style, for instance, is strong but unobtrusive, and the technical virtues are not the kind that draw attention to themselves. What we seem to confront in these pages — and it takes a consummate artist to produce such an illusion — is not literature, but experience itself.
The reader is perhaps three or four stories into the volume before he realizes the significance of the title; the volume for the most part concerns a group of people who knew each other at graduate school in Ann Arbor in 1960. They are gifted intellectuals, who expect great things from themselves and their friends, and the book is about the sad reality that they actually face. “I had wanted a life so different,” one of them thinks at one point, and the words might serve as a theme for the book as a whole.
Surprisingly, Annie Quirt, the apparently insignificant neurotic from the first story, emerges as the major focus of the first half of the book. In “The Tryst” we see her involved with another married man, he a solid responsible citizen, she a slangy, vulgar, and spontaneous young woman. We see their obvious attractions to the opposites in one another, and we begin to understand that Annie has so many involvements, especially with men already attached, perhaps just because she fears that leap into real intimacy. In “The Tryst” her lover daringly takes her home, and something in that moment — some echo of her past? a realization of who he really is? an awareness that she is perhaps being used to defile a marriage bed? — leads her to a suicide attempt. In “Eye Witness” we hear the voice inside her that stands apart and criticizes all that she does, the part of her that, as a doctor once told her, has a terrible self image and tries to live up to it. In “Sentimental Journey” she has a disastrous reunion with a friend from her Ann Arbor days. It is not until “Walled City” — Annie is thirty-four — that she realizes she has been seeking to fulfill her poor self image in her long series of love affairs, trying to define herself by what others see in her. She sets out, in the solitude that she discovers in Quebec City, to discover another part of herself. And though in this story she does have a love affair, with one more in that series of men who have really been just one man, at the end of the story — and it is a suitable conclusion for the whole series — he knocks on her door, and she does not answer.
None of these stories as a single piece is as impressive as the whole; it is the changes in these characters that take place through time that are most moving. Thus by far the most successful work is the last one, the title piece, a novella that follows two couples from a graduate party in 1960 — Annie Quirt, the tall striking red-haired art major, is there — through their careers into the mid-seventies. The story idea is almost banal: two couples start out as close friends and take opposite paths, one man entering the corporate world, the other an academic career, one woman raising a conventional family, the other drifting into drugs, open marriage, eastern religions, the human potential movement. . . . What is remarkable, again, is not the idea of the story, but just that Oates gets all the details right. These people seem to be our friends, whom we knew so many years ago on campus and gradually lost track of. Both roads taken, in this case, lead to similar sad ends, people continuing to look for the career that will have meaning, the love affair that will work. A couple at the end feels great excitement and possibility in one another’s presence, but they have been burned many times, and they back away wondering. . . .
Like our own lives, these stories also have their unaccountable surprises. The most pretentious and pompous of all the people at that early party winds up as a famous novelist, with a National Book Award to his credit. And toward the end of the story we stumble across a fact that gives us a kind of glow. “Well, there was Annie Quirt; evidently she had a one-woman show at a gallery in Chicago this past winter . . .” Ah, Annie. We’d lost track of her. How nice to hear it. She made good after all.