Joyce Carol Oates: “The Good Samaritan”

11/28/2011 § 5 Comments

Originally published in Harper’s, December 2011.

When you’re as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates — pretty much a novel and a collection (of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memories, plays) each year for the last twenty years, to say nothing of her teaching at Princeton or various editorial work for anthologies — you probably don’t have much time to stop and analyze every line; you know well enough how to tell a story, and you’ve got plenty to tell. It’s enough to simply write it out, trusting that it will be passable, even if only on the credit of your name. This seems borne out by the lack of awards given to her writing: quantity, not quality, is her game. And it’s illustrated, too, by this overly long “short,” which is about “a romance in lost objects … like abandoned houses, junked cars–objects once valuable and cherished, now ownerless.” The narrator is an older Nadia, looking back to the last moment (in 1981) in which she was still a shy, inexperienced twenty-year-old schoolgirl, the sort to normally avoid both conflict and conversation, to lose herself in her musical studies. As for the story itself, it follows the “powerful sensation” that drives her at first to abruptly return a stranger’s wallet to the emergency contact, Jalel Nivecca, and then to linger in the man’s home, offering him everything short of sexual succor upon learning that his wife, the wallet’s owner, is missing. Or rather, it attempts to follow this thread, and here’s where that lack of consistency comes into play.

The first third of the story is spent beefing up the narrator, with a series of essay-like paragraphs that lay everything on the table with their opening sentences, cite additional examples in the body, and occasionally draw conclusions. For instance: “We–my younger brother and I–had been brought up not to be careless,” begins one section, adding that this extends as follows: “Nor did we squander emotions or opinions. My opinions of others, including my closest friends, were kept private, unuttered, which was why, among girls who’d known me in high school, and now in college, I was very well liked, one to be trusted. I did not share secrets.” These first pages also provide an excess of information — and while it’s fine to tell us things that aren’t relevant to the story, that generally only holds up if the reader’s going to then be given the freedom to draw their own conclusions, too. As is, we have entirely too much non-relevant information about Nadia’s musical interests, a brief history of friends who carelessly lose things, and an apparently contradictory situation, in which Nadia writes of being “very well liked,” although not by her roommates: “She’s weird! She’d be better off in a single.” It’s fine to not know where you’re going as you write the story, but once you figure it out, the writing might seem tighter without irrelevant descriptions of, say, the Nivecca’s row house; just stick to the point about how “It was a neighborhood not so different from my own, a little older, slightly shabbier”: we get that Nadia feels a connection to the circumstances of the wallet’s owner, Anna-Maria, and her husband; we got that the moment Nadia “understood that Anna-Maria didn’t have money to throw around either. You could tell. The hairstyles of the young women, their dress-up clothes, ostentatious makeup, and jewelry.”

The next third largely focuses on the awkward conversation between Nadia and Jalel, although it winds up being just as much of an info-dump as what’s preceded it, once Jalel launches into a series of unhappy monologues about his on-and-off-again relationship with Anna-Maria, who “was always a happy person–except when she wasn’t.” We hear about her drinking, her secret walks, her needs for privacy, and even find a letter: “Don’t worry. I know you won’t. I will be back before you miss me.” There’s sexual tension from Jalel, who is himself a little drunk and emotionally anguished, but it comes to nothing — even though, as the title and Jalel imply, she’s clearly been brought here for something. Oates writes the following, but it doesn’t seem to be an accurate description of what’s occurring: “You will say that I was stupid. You will say that I was reckless. But I think that I was only just desperate. A girl who had not–yet–been in love, whose parents’ marriage seemed to have bled dry of love.” Likewise, one can make the argument that Oates wants to show us Anna-Maria through her objects, which echoes that central theme of being romantically lost, but this section scene is so laden with “significance” that this, too, fails.

With such infirm and aimless roots (“I couldn’t follow the thread of his remarks–I was thinking, just a little, of Crystal Donovan, and wondering what had become of her”), it should come as no surprise, then, that the final section, then, doesn’t succeed at building into anything. Instead, it rapidly skips through the next few decades, looking to put some artificial closure on the story as it notes that Mr. Nivecca soon vanishes from the family home at 2117 Pitcairn, along with his four-year-old daughter (who seems an afterthought), and that although detectives contact Nadia about the wallet, nothing ever comes of the search for Anna-Maria. Careful reading suggests not that Jalel has killed his wife, but that he has covered up her suicide: “Jalel drew back the shower curtain, which was also comparatively clean. The tub was old but clean; the bathroom smelled of cleanser. I thought, she cleaned this part of the house before she left.” I’m not quite sure what good uncovering that does, however, and although I admire the balls Joyce has to double down on this “good Samaritan” concept in her closing line (“It has to be something special, why you came to me. Some reason God sent you”), twice nothing, poetic or not, is still nothing.


§ 5 Responses to Joyce Carol Oates: “The Good Samaritan”

  • Randy says:

    For a fuller accounting of “the lack of awards given to her writing,” try here:


    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Randy, that was a very swift response and defense. A few things, though:

      (1) You and I have different definitions of “awards.” I don’t consider being anthologized or being put on a list of a hundred other books to be an award, merely a highly subjective achievement that’s due in part to name recognition, which is the very thing I’m criticizing in this opening paragraph. I’m also speaking outside of genres; I recognize that JCO has been very successful in mysteries, something I know little about. I apologize for the lack of clarity on my part.

      (2) Of the things that we *would* agree upon being awards, you’ll admit that there are levels of prestige that go with the various medals, honors, and prizes out there. Her individual stories — and collections in specific — time and again, fall short of the largest awards. The National Book Award, the Pulitzer, the PEN/Faulkner: her name has been absent from those lists for a decade now, during a period in which she has actually published even *more.* I may not have expressed it directly enough, but again, I believe that the quantity of work she puts out has led to a decrease in the quality: there simply isn’t the time, no matter how talented. I’d say the same of T. C. Boyle, although I believe him to be a more talented writer than Oates.

      (3) Finally, while I brought this upon myself for opening with a generality, I’m curious as to what you actually thought of the story, and whether or not you find her recent literary fiction to be as strong as her older work; is she pulling a Munro, a Millhauser, or an Updike (aging well, aging unnoticeably, or aging poorly)?

      • Scott Cheatham says:

        The story takes place in 1981, but yet Nadia was born in 1981…Did I miss something? The missing wife was born in 1974. Was this an editing mishap or was Oates trying to say that life for Nadia began when she found the wallet?

  • Greg DeMatio says:

    Ah, thank you! The dates confusion in this story is driving me crazy; I’ve been online all afternoon trying to find some reference or explanation, and your comment is the first reference I’ve found. Is it editing error? Seems Oates must have done it intentionally; would appear pretty amateurish, otherwise. What is happening here?! Thanks, all.

  • Andrew Kania says:

    I first thought this might be a typo, but that’s implausible. On the same page (p. 146 of the Black Dahlia collection), the inconsistency is foregrounded – Nadia does an internet search for “Carthage 1981 Anna-Marie Nivecca” and says she’s “listed” on the internet as “American composer, born 1981”. Oates aside, I doubt this would have got past a HarperCollins copy-editor.

    Interestingly, googling for discussion of this inconsistency, I came across a blog post from someone who read the story in Harper’s ( and they give the protagonist’s name as “Sonia”. Does anyone have access to the Harper’s version? It would be interesting to see if there’s any variation there (though it’s unlikely that if it were an error it would get introduced in the collection).

    One point worth noting: Nadia mentions that cell phones were around, but hadn’t become common at this point (p. 124). I take it this would not be true of up-state New York in 1981, but would be true in 2001. On the other hand, this would put the time of the narrative around 2030, which would be rather odd for this sort of story.

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