American Appetites: A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Dutton, 1989. 340 pp)

Born in Lockport, New York, Joyce Carol Oates earned her B.A. from Syracuse University and her M.A. from the University of Wisconsin. An author of over 40 novels, Oates has received numerous awards, including the O. Henry Award, the National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal, and the Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement.

See You in Court

The courtroom drama only has a minuscule amount of end games. Between guilty, not guilty, and possibly a hung jury, a story has little room to shock or surprise. And yet, legal theater draws much interest. Why?

I’m no psychologist but if I had to hazard a guess, I would put money on the stakes. In truth and fiction, the stories that take hold often rest on the fate of the accused. With a murder as the baseline, the defendant usually faces life in prison, or lethal injection. Such a fate adds drama to the courtroom. And, let’s not forget the search for justice for the victim. Put those elements together and it makes sense we—as a society—want to consume legal stories.

In my first foray into the waves of Joyce Carol Oates fiction, American Appetites unveils a courtroom narrative but with a surprising twist.

Upstate Affluence

Set in the mid-80s, American Appetites embodies Upstate New York affluence. The key characters around which the story proceeds operate as a married couple. Ian McCullough is a social scientist studying demographics at a local Think Tank.

“Ian McCullough had become a world-renowned figure in charting the courses of populations, in many cases of countries he had never visited, populations he’d never seen; thus any paper delivered by him must be ‘seminal,’ if not ‘definitive’ or ‘ground-breaking.’ Outside the airplane’s rather smeared windows there were clouds gusting about, and patches of blue bright and terrible as fissures in the skull. If the plane does not crash I will have done my work, Ian told himself, with his usual pragmatic equanimity. If it crushes, it will not matter” (86-87).

His wife, Glynnis authors cookbooks.

“Glynnis’s current project is a book tentatively titled American Appetites: Regional American Cooking from Alaska to Hawaii, at which she has been working, with varying degrees of inspiration and frustration, for the past year” (34).

Together, the couple hosts lavish parties for the well-to-do of Hazelton-on-Hudson.

The Other Woman

Much loved and respected in the community, the fissures in the marriage begin to show when Glynnis introduces Ian to a new friend of hers—an ingenue named Sigrid Hunt.

With the memory of Sigrid stuck in his craw, Ian immediately heads to her flat upon a random call from Sigurd a few months later. During this visit, Ian discovers Sigrid has encountered an unwanted pregnancy. Even though Ian entertains infidelity, he ultimately writes a check for Sigrid to get an abortion and thinks nothing of it.

“Ian had perceived early on that of course the vain young woman did not really want to have a baby; but she did, no doubt, want the struggle, the agon, of wanting it and being denied it: or, rather, of being compelled (out of her own magnanimity, for instance) to sacrifice it to necessity. She was wain, but she was also tractable: far more tractable than Glynnis” (26).

And yet, the check’s paper trail fractures his marriage. A contentious fight after too much to drink leaves the family in shambles and piques the interest of the police.

Once the reader encounters the courtroom in Act 3, the characters face a no-win situation. Guilt means an extended stay in prison and acquittal will never solve the irreparable fracture. And in this plot structure, American Appetites, provides a unique take on the legal drama.

While American Appetites is not a popular Joyce Carol Oates novel, it opened a window into her style and has encouraged me to read more of her work.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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