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Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘A Book of American Martyrs’ review: A timely, explosive novel about the abortion wars

Joyce Carol Oates, author of

Joyce Carol Oates, author of "A Book of American Martyrs." Credit: Dustin Cohen

A BOOK OF AMERICAN MARTYRS, by Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, 736 pp., $29.99.

Joyce Carol Oates’ new novel, “A Book of American Martyrs,” arrives splattered with our country’s hot blood. As the Republican Congress plots to defund Planned Parenthood and the right to choose could hinge on one vacant Supreme Court seat, “American Martyrs” probes all the wounds of our abortion debate. Indeed, it’s the most relevant book of Oates’ half-century-long career, a powerful reminder that fiction can be as timely as this morning’s tweets but infinitely more illuminating.

The opening pages explode. Immediately we’re there, inside the head of Luther Dunphy, filled with the zeal of divine vengeance. “So swiftly the Lord executed my moments,” he thinks, “there was not time in the eyes of the enemy to register fear or alarm.” After telling his boss that he’ll be late for work, Luther drives to the Broome County Women’s Center in Muskegee Falls, Ohio, timing his trip to coincide with the arrival of the chief doctor, Gus Voorhees. As Gus gets out of his van, Luther raises his shotgun and shoots the doctor in the throat.

From that instant of violence — resembling the 1994 murder of physician John Britton and his guard in Pensacola, Florida — Oates draws her own vast tale about righteousness both religious and secular. Spreading out over more than 700 pages, the novel has room to trace the events that motivated Luther before that deadly morning and to explore the penumbra cast by Gus’ death over the next decade. We come to know both men’s wives and children: the well-educated, liberal Voorheeses and the poor, devout Dunphys. They are American families so separated by opportunity and ideology that they could be living in different countries, but Oates’ sympathetic attention renders both with moving clarity.

The opening section stays close to Luther, the deadly activist who will initially strike most readers as a monster. But in the careful accruing of Oates’ narrative, he becomes something more real and complex: a father shattered by guilt, a husband incapable of arresting his wife’s depression, a carpenter bravely laboring through crippling pain. It’s no wonder that such trials would push him toward a search for redemption, a cause greater than himself.

He confesses to us: “The possibility that the Lord God, Who has spoken to others and has shown the way in which His will might be fulfilled in the world of humankind, might have spoken at last to me — this was terrifying to me.” Encouraged by the “justifiable homicide” doctrine of a particularly strident antiabortionist, he concludes, “You, Luther Dunphy. You are the chosen one.”

The novel insists that Luther’s sense of mission is no less palpable than that felt by his victim, Gus Voorhees. In later chapters focusing on the doctor, we see a man driven by equally deep-seated ideals, just as convinced of the rightness of his cause as his most strident opponents are. His liberal mission brooks no compromise, no accommodation of others’ sensitivities nor even an acknowledgment of the risks he subjects himself to.

It’s on this last point that the story moves toward the collateral victims of Voorhees’ murder and offers its most poignant insights. What will the doctor’s wife and children suffer by loving a man who refused to guard his own life more cautiously? What price will they pay by having their own lives forever viewed through the optics of the country’s abortion conflict?

Those questions come to dominate the novel as Oates shifts her focus to two girls: one a daughter of Gus Voorhees, the other a daughter of Luther Dunphy. The lost children of American martyrs, they move in worlds so alien to each other that only we can see the filament of pain that connects them. Bright Naomi Voorhees struggles for years to construct a record of her father’s life, while plodding Dawn Dunphy pours her anger into becoming a professional fighter.

In these hyperpartisan times, we want to know, of course, is this a pro-choice novel or an anti-abortion novel? Although Oates’ Twitter feed leaves little doubt about her personal views, as an artist, she’s far too good to allow her book to descend into such polemics. The Voorheeses may reflect her own ideals, but the Dunphys are treated with equal respect.

Regardless of your own faith or politics, the real miracle here is how, even after 700 pages, we can still be racing along, steeling ourselves for the very last line, a line we’re desperate to reach — but not too soon.

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