The Good: Characters, Tone, Pacing, Details, Poetry, Creation of a time and place, Plot, Title
The Bad: The back of the book, mostly.
The Basics: Original, poetic, character-driven, Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart is everything one could hope for from a novel. Creates a place and time expertly!
I've never been one who has been into local things; I don't watch the local news because I think it tends to be pretentious and a waste of time. I think I sit through one half hour of local evening news a month. I've never been one who hunts down pieces of novels I've read, either; I take them as they come, for the work of art that they are. As a novelist, I know that it's somewhat cruel to build up a place that people might want to go to, which is why my settings always have distinctive differences from their real life counterparts. And yet, in the latter half of Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, when the protagonist moves to Syracuse, New York, which is only a few miles from where I live and the author names such streets as Salina Street and references the Niagara Mohawk building, I was quite captivated. These are real places I've been or driven on. My bottomline for the novel comes down to this: I was so engrossed by the novel that I'm going out to see if I can find 2117 South Salina Street, just to see if it's still there or if it existed at all outside the novel. It certainly seemed real enough in the writing.
If you're reading this review and I paint the novel out well enough that you chose to read it, I'd like to suggest that you do not read the back of the novel. It is misleading in the worst possible way, setting up the expectations of a relationship that never truly exists. It's irksome. I'd call it "false advertising," save that that sounds stupid. When you finish reading the novel, then read the back; it's better that way.
Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is the story of Iris Courtney. She is growing up in mid to late 1950s in Western New York State. She lives in Hammond, New York, a small town that is barely ethnically integrated and de facto segregation exists along economic lines. Iris lives in the lower economic areas of town. Born to an alcoholic mother who is absent minded and self-centered and a father who is neglectful, alcoholic and a gambler, Iris grows up introverted and isolated. One night, breaking curfew, she sneaks out of the house.
Also in the lower areas of Hammond is "Jinx" Fairchild. He's a young black basketball star. He's also older than Iris and is working the night Iris sneaks out. The two meet up and Iris leaves to go home. Unfortunately, that very night, the local hoodlum (who is possibly mentally retarded, possibly has Tourette's Syndrome or is probably simply unspeakably cruel and vile) begins chasing Iris. So, Iris goes back to Jinx for protection and he grudgingly provides it, despite the obvious social complications of a young black man being associated with an underage white girl in 1956. Little Red Garlock, the hoodlum, heads them off and Jinx and Garlock fight. Garlock is not the type to give up. The fight does not end until one of them is dead. On the plus side, the likable Jinx wins. The down side, a white boy has been killed and it's 1956.
So begins Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart. No kidding, either. The novel begins with Garlock's body being dragged out of the river. What follows is the effect of the death on Iris and Jinx. As Iris' family falls apart, she returns to that night, attempting to find reason and emotional support in Jinx. Jinx, for his part, is doing what he can to put that night behind him. Jinx finds himself in the unenviable position of being human enough to care, to know that while it was self defense, the act still makes him a murderer and being torn by the effects of his silence.
The wonderful things about the novel are the characters and the plot. On the subject of the plot, it was - blissfully! - not predictable. So very much effort goes into establishing the time and place, lines are revealed about the future, including deaths and loves, yet they do not resolve themselves along predicted lines. I blame part of the misperception of the novel on the back of the book. The truth is, Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart is unpredictable; it is truly original. After the first few chapters, I had figured that the novel would progress with Jinx and Iris having a relationship until the truth of the murder is revealed at which time, I was betting on Jinx being lynched and the novel ending. So much tension between ethnicities and individuals in the late 50s, early 60s that Joyce Carol Oates captures that this seemed the natural flow of the novel. What a pleasantly unnatural experience the novel becomes, then!
The magical characters do it, though. Iris and Jinx are individuals, not models placed in slots on some plot storyboard. As such, they act in accordance with their backgrounds, but also with their individual experiences. The magic of the characters is that they are individuals and while That Night preys upon them, they continue in their own lives, defined by who they are and not only that one experience. As such, it seems perfectly natural that Iris and Jinx never form a romantic relationship. Their story together is one of hit and miss, chance encounters, attempts for each to seek meaning in the other. And the truest revelation of the novel is the understanding that in the larger scheme, there is no place for the other in each individual's life.
Joyce Carol Oates writes the novel poetically, with a deep affinity for the English language. Take the title! Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart must be one of the top ten most poetic titles in all of literature. Ever! The novel is not flowery, but it is bold in its use of language, picturesque in its detail and precise in how all of those details come together.
The novel is Iris Courtney's. We learn plenty about Jinx Fairchild, but the truth is, what we come to know about Jinx only strengthens our understanding of Iris and why Jinx does not have a place in her life outside being the savior for her one night. And while Iris' story does not truly end, we are given enough information to reasonably deduce Jinx's demise and it's not what we go into the novel believing. And that is refreshing.
Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart is an essential novel for all those who love realist fiction, who want to find something character driven and just plain beautiful. It's refreshing to see people are still writing novels like that.
For other classic novels, please check out my reviews of:
The Sound And The Fury - William Faulkner
Zami - Audre Lorde
The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand
For other book reviews, please click here to visit my index page!
© 2010, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.