In 1993, David Gunn became the first US abortion doctor to be murdered. He was shot to death in Pensacola, Florida. Since that time there have been 11 more murders and 26 attempted killings due to anti-abortion violence â€“ the most recent in 2015, when police officer Garrett Swasey, Jennifer Markovsky, and Keâ€™Arre Stewart were shot and killed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Perhaps it was that 2015 assault that prompted the prolific Joyce Carol Oates to turn her gaze to the conflict between the pro-choice and â€œpro-lifeâ€ movements. This expansive novel â€“ nearly 750 pages long â€“ explores two sides of the same story. In November 1999 a doctor in Ohio, Gus Voorhees, is murdered by Luther Amos Dunphy, a roofer and lay preacher, a man who has come to believe himself a soldier of God. The bookâ€™s virtuoso opening is narrated by Dunphy himself in the run-up to the murder, pinning the reader close to his fear of the â€œgodless atheistical stateâ€, his belief that â€œin a woman, the weaknesses of a man are doubled, or trebledâ€. He trains to be a minister, but finds the study required too difficult: it is then that he turns to find salvation with a shotgun.
In the aftermath of the killing the story branches out, turning first to the family of Voorhees through the construction of an â€œarchiveâ€ by his daughter Naomi, just barely a teenager when her father is killed. One of the strengths of this novel is the way in which Oates creates convincing parallels between the Voorhees family and the Dunphys: both men have wives who suffer as the result of their husbandsâ€™ devotion to a cause; both have children of similar age who pay a high price for their fathersâ€™ actions. Joyce Carol Oates is known to be pro-choice, and indeed in speaking about this novel last year she said â€œbasically it is a pro-choice novelâ€; that said, Voorhees is no saint. His belief in his work â€“ in providing healthcare to women who would not otherwise have access to it â€“ leads him to move his family all over the country. Naomi, without a chance to settle in school, is bullied, bullying which will only get worse after her fatherâ€™s death; Voorheesâ€™s wife, Jenna, keeps her last name but is firmly in her husbandâ€™s shadow, as subservient in her own way as Edna May, Dunphyâ€™s troubled spouse.
Naomi is surrounded by people who try to comfort her by telling her that her father was brave, that she must be proud of her father. â€œProud is like brave, Naomi thinks. Alive is what matters.â€ Her anger is hot and visceral, and it finds an echo in the novelâ€™s other daughter, Dunphyâ€™s child Dawn. Dawn channels her anger into one of the authorâ€™s great passions, boxing, and the passages that describe her fights are some of the most powerful in the book.
This is a gripping novel, full of unexpected twists that make what could be a political treatise into a page-turner. And it is as honest as its author can make it, or so the reader must believe; but thatâ€™s an honesty that only goes so far. For while Naomiâ€™s perceptions have the feeling of being written from the inside (here is a character who can articulate anger and grief, describe the interior of an apartment in the West Village) the same cannot be said of Dawnâ€™s. She takes the name DD Dunphy to box, and calls herself â€œthe Hammer of Jesusâ€. Her strength is not swift but stolid, relentless. When she begins to succeed as a fighter, sheâ€™s interviewed: sheâ€™s asked about feminism but â€œshe did not comprehend this, nor could she interpret the interviewerâ€™s broad smileâ€. Again and again it is as if Oates cannot quite bring herself to see that however disadvantaged Dawn Dunphy has been in her youth, there is a full human being behind her eyes, behind her fists; for all the novel strives for even-handedness it cannot, finally, avoid condescension, particularly in its final pages.
Which is a shame, but perhaps not surprising. It is certainly a reminder that now â€“ more than ever â€“ we must all strive to see as best we can through each otherâ€™s eyes.
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