Books: Teenagers in trouble

Wendy Brandmark scratches a delinquent and finds a victim
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The Independent Culture
Man Crazy

by Joyce Carol Oates

Virago, pounds 15.99, 288pp

FROM A trembling, two-seater Cessna plane, Ingrid Boone glimpses "the edge of the world that's always there whether you see it or not or know of it or not. So close you could be sucked over easy as sleep." She has clung for so long to the edge that her fall into the dark heart of a biker gang feels like a release.

Ingrid is a child of violence. Her father, a pilot who learned to kill in Vietnam, hides from the police after being implicated in a drug dealer's murder. Her beautiful, jittery mother follows him to a series of decrepit safe houses in upstate New York where Ingrid witnesses drunken brawls. He disappears after murdering one of her mother's lovers, but surfaces like a ghoul at the gates of Ingrid's school, enticing her with ice cream and money. A handsome, violent outcast whose love must be won with promises of complicity in lawlessness, he is the archetype of her future lovers.

Ingrid grows up a bright but disturbed teenager, a "Doll-girl" boys use and discard. She becomes estranged from her mother who seems addicted to drink and men, "saying it didn't matter if the man you're with is nobody you much care for, other men will be looking you over too. It's the other men, the men you haven't yet met, one of them who'll maybe change your life, you're fixing yourself up for."

Ingrid's Mr Right is a biker whose gang deals in drugs and teenage girls. Enoch Skaggs, ex-con and "scourge of the Aryan race", is less a character than a nightmare, but Ingrid willingly returns to him even after having been raped, beaten and half-starved, because the pain inflicted by her Satanic Daddy makes her feel alive. Only when she is locked in the cellar and can feel death creeping over her does she remember her mother's love and her own small will to live.

Joyce Carol Oates has written some of the best and most Gothic of her fiction about disaffected working-class adolescent girls in America. An early short story, "Where are you going? Where have you been?", shows the terrifying blankness of the teenage heroine stalked by a creepy man, a forerunner of Enoch Skaggs. In a later work, Foxfire, a gang of teenage girls from homes almost as violent and chaotic as Ingrid's use their sexuality in a bizarre revolt against the men who exploit them.

Yet seems more violent and perverse than these earlier fictions. It is as if Oates were no longer content to suggest the horror; she must show the betrayal of innocence, the bloody rituals based on the breaking of all commandments: "Jesus Christ would not be so cruel as Satan but Satan is the one who, when you call, he comes."

This novel may shock but does not haunt us in the same way as some of her other works. Often she allows an emptiness, a moral no-man's land, to stretch eerily between the reader and characters, but in Ingrid speaks directly to us in a voice as nervous as her fingers, always picking at her scabs and now pulling us through the shrill scenes of her life. She may be the victim who scars herself instead of fighting back; yet she articulates her anguish and anger in a confession whose desperation is also its beauty. This is not Oates's most subtle novel, yet the writing has a dark lyricism which, like Ingrid's love-starved face, will not be easily forgotten.