My Life as a Rat, by Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Ecco, 2019, ISBN 978-0-06-289983-5). 416 pp. Hardcover, $28.99.
There are certain things you don’t talk about, such as your brothers cleaning their murder weapon, the math teacher who drugged you, or the uncle who lusted after you. In this riveting yet grim forty-fourth novel from the prolific and compelling Joyce Carol Oates, the opening setting is as bleak as the hero’s chances at the good life.
Violet Rue Kerrigan is the hero of My Life as a Rat. Living in South Niagara, a dismal city resembling Oates’s hometown of Lockport, New York, thirty miles north of Buffalo, Violet witnesses her brothers, Jerr and Lionel, hiding a murder weapon one night. She tells on them after one brother uses violence in an attempt to force Violet’s silence.
The Kerrigan home is a hard-drinking, Irish Catholic hell with too many siblings and a mother so distant she allows the father to abuse the children with his own brand of punishment. It’s no surprise, then, when the brothers are arrested for killing a black teen. Forced from her home by child welfare, fourteen-year-old Violet moves in with her aunt and uncle in Port Oriskany (a plant with sharp thorns) while her brothers go to state prison.
And Violet is not safe at school. She is befriended by a math teacher, oddly named Mr. Sandman. Sandman regularly takes Violet to his own home where he drugs her and photographs her naked. The reader is led to believe sexual contact also takes place, but Violet isn’t sure. Because Violet has been torn from her family in South Niagara, she actually views Sandman as her only “friend” and refuses to rat on him when he’s finally caught.
It is here that the novel becomes disjointed. After the descriptions and build-up of the Kerrigan family drama, suddenly Violet is in Sandman’s world. Sandman’s world is its own short story, breaking from the quick-hit narrative of the Kerrigans. The book reads like a patchwork in places, the main story built around a short story Oates had previously published in a few literary magazines.
As if Sandman is not enough, Violet’s uncle starts making sexual advances, inspired by the example set by Sandman. Keeping silent on the sexual abuse, Violet grows up, attends St. Lawrence University, and meets Orlando Metti, a rich man, for a kind of dark Pretty Woman romance. Amid her numerous relocations, Violet carries the great fear that one day her brothers will get out of prison and seek revenge.
Oates treads familiar territory here. Though the crime is different, My Life as a Rat echoes Oates’s persistent themes: violence, alcohol abuse, women as victims (even of normal adult sexual acts; the vagina described as a woman’s permanent wound, the man’s tongue a predator snake), manipulation, and racial tension.
The narrator moves to Mohawk, New York, attending the state university where she encounters Tyrell Jones, a boy she knew when she ratted out her brothers. Hauntingly, Violet begins talking as if she’s been in love with Tyrell the whole time. Oates describes her character as a “rudderless oarless boat on a fast-moving stream” and a woman running for her life.
The mystery of this fast-moving fiction is solved, as it is so often in Violet’s life, by violence. It’s a life lesson: Doing the right thing isn’t always the right thing to do.