Foxfire is a brooding, passionate account of a teenage girl-gang in upstate New York during the mid-Fifties. Its chronicler - and perhaps its conscience - is the sensitive Maddy, whose diaries from the period are being transcribed before our eyes: 'You can see how I'm not a practiced writer - not leading this material but led by it', though her earnest protestations of amateurism fail to conceal a shrewd attention to structure and pacing. Maddy's memoir has a beginning, a middle and a fair blistering end, and jolting changes between first person and third notwithstanding, this is a compellingly crafted piece of storytelling.
That story revolves largely around the figure of 'Legs' Sadovsky, leader of the gang she has christened FOXFIRE (capitalised throughout) and recounts their war against the male gender, or at least its sweaty, lecherous, loathsome representatives. And it is a war, 'an undeclared war, them hating us, men hating us no matter our age or who the hell we are'. And, on the principle that our best weapons are the ones that we take from the enemy, these female freedom-fighters swear a blood oath and take the battle to 'Them': a lascivious maths teacher at their high school is first to get the Foxfire comeuppance, finding his car daubed with coarse reminders of his rottenness. Then an uncle of Maddy's tries to cajole his terrified niece into sex, and gets a comprehensive mauling from Maddy's cohorts for his trouble. During a tense face-off with the all-male Viscount gang, Legs pulls out a flick-knife and damn near gives the school principal a heart attack, but that's OK because he's a 'slack-jawed, mottle-faced man in his fifties'. The one thing worse than being male in this setting, it seems, is being male and old and ugly.
At such times the novel glows with the white heat of a revenge fantasy. What begins as a programme of sisterly protection escalates into small-time gangsterism, and the women have nicknames to match - 'Legs' and 'Killer', 'Boom-Boom' and 'Fireball' and - an Eastwood fore-runner - 'The Enforcer'. With cruel ingenuity this moll mafia sets about gulling the ordinary Joe, first 'hooking' him by some feminine wile, then, when he bites, fleecing him with quite unfeminine ruthlessness. It's some kind of a living. If the book has a problem it's that the voice tends to become a little breathless, appropriate enough given its young owner but slightly wearing in its random italics, stream - or rather flood - of consciousness, and sing-song repetition ('FOXFIRE BURNS & BURNS]'). Yet one has to recognise that what is most indulgent in Oates' style draws from the same source as what is most enlivening and distinctive: she is a writer who can carry off scenes of headlong, wildcat mayhem with superior aplomb.
That gift is especially effective in the book's brilliant finale. Having graduated from petty crime and acts of liberating bravado, Legs decides to go for the jackpot and kidnap a fat-cat millionaire - unfortunately for the gang this cat turns out to have sharper claws than anyone could have suspected, and their ransom demands never get past first base. Disaster strikes, and the book whips up a feverish momentum as Legs drives the getaway car flat-out towards the Canadian border, with the police in hot pursuit. Her fate is left tantalisingly open-ended, and when Maddy returns to the neighbourhood 10 years later only a single blurred photograph from Cuba, 1961, suggests that Legs might not have ended up at the bottom of a river after all.
In a bleak coda Maddy takes stock of her own travails - a broken marriage, exile in New Mexico, and, somewhere along the way, a lost vocation. She has not become a writer but an astronomer's assistant, star-struck but no longer sentimental as she contemplates rock-debris: 'It seems natural you would harden your heart, doesn't it?' Yet in this quietly heroic effort to preserve memory against the erosion of time, Maddy's heart, far from hardening, has worked overtime.