Like much of Joyce Carol Oates' fiction, "Broke Heart Blues" centers on a single murky act of violence and its endlessly radiating repercussions. But while the plot, the upstate New York setting and the discontented characters are familiar from her 28 other novels, the tone of stifling, sickening sentimentality is not. Ordinarily Oates' greatest strength is her psychological acuity, and so it's tempting to believe that the book's cloyingly nostalgic atmosphere is meant to emphasize how pathetic and deluded her multiple narrators are. Unfortunately, there's little to indicate such wry distance, and even if there were, spending 384 pages in the heads of adults who believe that life ended in high school is a singularly claustrophobic experience.
Set in Willowsville, an insular, wealthy suburb of Buffalo, the book pivots around John Reddy Heart, a devastatingly cool and sexy boy-man who, at age 16, stands trial for murdering a prominent local businessman in his mother's bedroom. It's unclear whether he shot the man to protect his mother or he covered up for the real killer -- one of many ambiguities that will obsess Heart's classmates throughout their lives. These classmates narrate most of "Broke Heart Blues," forming an amorphous chorus that stretches from their high school days through a reunion 30 years after graduation.
Each of the novel's chapters is told by a different person, though we never learn exactly who any of them are -- indeed, they're distinguished from each other only by a few pronouns. Instead of the shifting, "Rashomon"-style perspective one would expect from such a polyphonic device, the voices here are so uniform and they form such a consensus that it's almost as if Oates is trying to make a point about the town's stifling conformity. While she is usually adept at penetrating middle-class placidity to find the rawness and eccentricity of her characters' secret hearts, here she gives us a world in which, despite huge disparities in adolescent caste positions and grown-up lifestyles, everyone feels essentially the same way. Especially about John Reddy Heart, whom they worship into their adulthoods -- long after he's disappeared from their lives.
Thus the mystery that should propel the story -- what really happened that night in John's mother's bedroom? -- is lost beneath a collective emotional impairment. According to one of Heart's classmates -- Oates doesn't tell us which one, and it doesn't matter -- "After high school in America, everything's posthumous." That line, so patently absurd, is the animating idea in all these lives. The girls blossom into movie stars and prize-winning novelists, the boys grow up to be millionaires, computer geniuses and university presidents, but they all feel that they were their truest selves as teenagers, and we're expected to believe that not one of them outgrows the fixation with the sexy young rebel. The novel's third section, titled simply "Thirtieth Reunion," degenerates into a kind of Gothic "Big Chill" as all these middle-aged men and women sob, scream, copulate with old crushes and ponder John Reddy Heart endlessly.
Only the brief middle section offers a respite from the maudlin cacophony of the rest of the book. Here, Oates assumes the third person and tells the gripping story of Heart's tumultuous childhood and barely salvaged adulthood. Instead of the iconic figure of Willowsville lore, he emerges as a confused, reticent yet heroically loyal son forced to mature too soon, a boy too busy keeping his family together to notice his smitten peers.
In this section, Oates is on familiar ground. Her best works -- such novels as "Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart," "Foxfire" and "You Must Remember This" -- are stories of hungry outsiders, set in the terrain of lower-middle-class aspiration and desperation. The characters in these books would probably see the affluent suburbanites who populate "Broke Heart Blues" as a single, indistinct blob of smugness. Oates herself certainly seems to view them this way, and that's why instead of brimming with the acid poetry and cruel insights that usually enliven her fiction, this novel ends up as mired in banality as its cast of sad, stuck, middle-aged adolescents.