Books: Ready for the mild one

Broke Heart Blues by Joyce Carol Oates Virago, pounds 16.99, 512pp: Mary Flanagan enjoys a novel that asks what it takes to be a real hero
WILLOWSVILLE, THE setting for Broke Heart Blues, is one of those affluent upstate New York towns where teenagers are given convertibles for their 16th birthday and everyone votes Republican.

Joyce Carol Oates's new novel is exceptional in having a collective narrator of both sexes: an exclusive set of High School friends known as The Circle. Their tumble of voices tells a story of obsession, murder, sex and redemption. Class reunions fix the plot in space and time as it loops and dives from the Sixties to the Nineties.

These spoilt virgins and their jock boyfriends, the sort of morons who later get to run the world, fancy themselves special and cool, even as they inhabit the bubble chamber of privilege. The apex of their lives is High School, where they remain psychologically trapped well into middle age.

Into this bastion of gilded mediocrity comes John Reddy Heart, first sighted negotiating a salmon-coloured Cadillac along the town's main thoroughfare. He's 11 years old and an instant legend. The beautiful blonde asleep beside him is his mother Dahlia: widow, former Las Vegas croupier and aspirant gold-digger. Bequeathed a distinguished old house by a doting colonel, she has transported her eccentric family East. Other passengers include the rakish, whisky-swilling old Grandpa Heart and Farley and Shirleen, siblings of Gothic strangeness. This is the Tennessee Williamsville of Orpheus Descending, with incestuous undertones, avenging fathers and civic delirium.

John Reddy's sensuous good looks spark universal female hysteria, with even the "good" girls screaming "John Reddy, We're Ready" under his window. His basketball prowess endears him to his team-mates. Yet he remains inscrutable. Far more than a sex symbol, he is a rebel hero out of the West, another beaten-up Brando. And the group's most persistent delusion is that he is interested in them.

"He's someone you feel," gurgles an infatuated cheerleader. "He enters you through the eyes, but he's someone you feel." Oates's rhapsodic style suggests primitive religious rites. John Reddy is Adonis, Dionys us, the dying god whose sacrifice ensures the survival of the community. Like Maenads, the townspeople want to tear him to pieces, to devour him, become him. But John Reddy Heart is a reluctant deity.

When a wealthy local businessman is shot to death in Dahlia's bedroom, he is naturally blamed for the crime. Apparently confirming his guilt, he speeds north in the Cadillac, only to be spectacularly captured and almost killed by the police. A front-page photo of his arrest, his incarceration, trial and subsequent release provoke a national media frenzy.

Oates is astute on America's social divisions. Families are split, with Moms and adolescents praying for the 16-year-old white-trash "Killer Boy" and Dads calling for his execution. They hate him because he refuses to be impressed or to play their game. He is that perpetual threat to authority, the underdog.

Even at their orgiastic thirtieth reunion - a magnificent tragi-comic set piece running to 90 pages - The Circle still imagines their idol will at last turn up at their party.

Meanwhile, the vanished JRH has become a real person. Disdaining the early death required of heroes, he prefers honesty, simplicity and privacy. And he hates guns. As Mr Fix-It, he repairs roofs, plumbing and the odd broken heart. While in the novel's first section he was virtually mute, in the second we are let into his mind and emotions.

Here Oates opposes two American myths: Hollywood and Walden, Thoreau's contemplative masterpiece, which the group so resents having to read. Verrie Myers, film star and former cheerleader, embodies the media-manufactured archetype, while John Reddy scorns the American Way of fame and walks off the set and into the woods.

The novel is long and often repetitious, without the haunting intensity of its predecessor, You Must Remember This. Yet Oates is enthralling, tackling big issues and blood-red emotions. She shows us the stuff our dreams are made of. For John Reddy Heart is a hero, though only the reader knows why. He wants neither to be divine nor the subject of a million- selling rock ballad. He wants to be good, which is much harder.