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At age 83, Joyce Carol Oates is one of our most important and prolific writers (author of roughly a hundred books, including many bestselling novels, but also volumes of stories, essays, poetry, and plays). I read some of her early novels and an occasional essay, but then she slipped from my mind until I discovered her recent 800-page novel, Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars: A Novel (hereafter, Night . . .). Its opening chapter (entitled Prologue) rivets us as we read two “officers who were continuing their manhandling of the dark-skinned young man though it was clear” that he “was not resisting them unless you called trying to shield his face and head from their blows ‘resisting.’”

As the chapter continues we discover that “the dark-skinned young man” is a twenty-eight-year-old doctor, born in India, that he was pulled over for no legitimate reason, and was tased. Also attacked was a much older man, sixty-seven-year-old John Earle McClaren (Whitey), who decades earlier had been a popular moderate-Republican mayor of his small New York city (a fictional Hammond, “a fifty-minute drive” northeast of the infamous Attica prison. Whitey’s offense? Stopping his car and yelling at the police, “You’re beating a defenseless man. What has he done? I want to know what this man has done. I am going to report you for excessive force.” Instead of learning what the dark-skinned man had done, after being tased, Whitey lapsed into a coma and was rushed to a hospital.


Much later in the novel Whitey’s youngest daughter, Sophia, is also mistreated by a policeman after her car is stopped in order to harass her. In an interview Oates stated “The issue of police brutality or ‘misconduct’ has been around my entire life . . . . I’ve been writing about it since the 1960s. The only difference is now there’s visual evidence and social media. In the novel, there’s no video of the encounter [with Whitey]--so it’s just a matter of people giving testimony. That’s always been the way that police have eluded any kind of punishment for what they’ve done.”

With the recent trial of former Minnesota police officer Kimberly Potter, who was convicted of manslaughter after fatally shooting Daunte Wright in his police-stopped car, once again reminding us of the many situations where white cops stop Afro American young men, Oates’ opening is relevant to us all in our nation still struggling--after hundreds of years--with racism. And mid way through her book, Oates takes up race relations once again as Whitey’s oldest children (there are three of them and two younger ones) reveal their ethnic biases against U. S. Asians and Hispanics.

Throughout her book Oates sympathies are clearly with progressive values, and she empathizes with those who are often looked down upon by better-off whites, not only ethnic minorities but also gay people and the poor. Whitey’s youngest son is a “closet” gay and an artist who lives an unconventional lifestyle. Another major character is photographer and poet Hugo Martinez, whom widow Jessalyn comes to love after Whitey’s death early in the novel. Although Hugo’s father emigrated from Puerto Rico, Jessalyn’s oldest daughter, Beverly, contemptuously refers to him as a Cuban communist. Among minor characters, Oates empathizes with unjustly convicted prisoners and a foreign-born African.

Here is a detailed example:

Hugo photographed two ex-prisoners . . . that had been released from incarceration recently through the efforts of Liberators Ministry. Both were male, and African-American. More than 90 percent of the prisoners the Liberators had freed in twenty years were persons of color, Hugo remarked; all but one had been male and she had been a Haitian-American woman who’d been misidentified in a police lineup in Detroit.

Carlin Milner was forty-one years old, and had been incarcerated in a Pennsylvania maximum security prison for twenty-two years, for a robbery-homicide in Philadelphia which he had not committed. . . .

. . . Carlin was studying to be a minister. His manner was guarded but friendly. . . .

Hugo’s second subject Hector Cavazos was thirty-nine years old. He’d spent eighteen years in the maximum security prison at Attica for a particularly brutal rape-murder (in Buffalo) which he had not committed; DNA evidence had eventually freed him, but only after years of obfuscation and hostility on the part of the Buffalo prosecutors who were now planning to retry him for the homicide, though their only evidence was the police-informant “eyewitness” who’d originally testified against him. . . .

Lawsuits were pending against the respective police departments and municipalities that were responsible for such gross miscarriages of justice. Seven million dollars, twelve million dollars. Litigation would drag on, in both cases, for years.

Jessalyn felt a pang of sorrow for the men whose youthful lives had been taken from them so cruelly. They’d been fortunate just to survive in the maximum security prisons, Hugo said, where they’d received very poor medical care, if any.

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Yet they were not bitter, at least not in the presence of Hugo Martinez and his white-skinned woman friend. Not much point to anger, Milner said. Just eats up your heart for nothing.

(According to late 2021 statistics, “Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at nearly five times the rate of whites, and Latinx people are 1.3 times as likely to be incarcerated than non-Latinx whites.”)

Besides empathizing with U. S. minorities and unjustly convicted prisoners, Oates also displays empathy with victims of global imperialism. For example, “Spanish conquistadores plundered the continent that would come to be called Latin America, wiping out most of the indigenous tribes of Central America in the name of religion—Roman Catholicism.” Oates refers to this “wiping out” as “a massive near-extinction, a man-caused genocide.”

The value of Oates’ novel is not just its relevance for issues like imperialism and a racism that has long plagued us, but also the basic and essential wisdom that it reflects. Long-time editor of the Wisdom Page, Copthorne Macdonald, once wrote about wisdom that “values are at the heart of the matter,” and he quoted a famous neuropsychologist who wrote that “human value priorities . . . stand out as the most strategically powerful causal control now shaping world events. More than any other causal system with which science now concerns itself, it is variables in human value systems that will determine the future.” Macdonald and other wisdom scholars recommend such wisdom-associated values as love, empathy, truth, honesty, justice, cooperation, peace, compassion, universal well-being,and creativity. On the same Wisdom Page site, I once wrote, “Love: the Greatest Wisdom Virtue.”

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In her Night . . . , after Whitey’s death, Oates has the character most similar to herself stress the centrality of love : “Whitey is a sun, but a waning sun. Hugo is the new, luminous moon, coming into its fullness. Without him, where would I be? Without him to love me, who would I be? But more, she would have no one to love. Tenderness stirs in her, like life itself. So long as Jessalyn is alive, she must have someone to love and to care for.” As a wife and mother of five, she had expended most of that love on her husband and children, but Whitey dies and her five adult children, though she still loves them, are less in need of her care.

Jessalyn is also wise in realizing how lucky and privileged she has been in her life. After meeting the two ex-prisoners Hugo photographed, she “felt both privileged and ashamed; she had suffered so little in her life, set beside Carlin Milner and Hector Cavazos, and others unjustly incarcerated for long periods of time; she knew nothing of such stoicism. She, a widow who’d believed that she had suffered greatly by losing her husband . . . Even from suffering she’d been shielded by her class, her money. Her marriage to a man who had loved and protected her. Domestic life had blinded her to the real sorrows of the world. Happiness had blinded her.”

Having undergone the misery of loosing her own two husbands, Oates is especially wise about widowhood, and Jessalyn is the novel’s finest creation. Here is what Oates had to say in a June 2019 interview: “Since the death of my husband, Charlie Gross, on 13 April, I am scarcely writing at all. . . . I am just too distracted and too tired. After my first husband, Ray Smith, died in February 2008, I was also exhausted for a long time and did not feel that I’d “recovered” – emotionally, psychologically, but also physically – for two or three years.” A year later in another interview, Oates added that her second husband, Charlie, was “in many ways” similar to her fictional character Hugo.

In a previous article dealing with fiction, I mentioned that I turned to it “not only for the chance to experience life through other eyes,” but also because of some identity with one or more of the major character and because it shed light on important truths--i. e., it offered some important wisdom.

Night . . . fulfilled all of these goals. In seeing the world through the eyes of a wife and widow, Jessalyn (and Oates), I was able to empathize more with a woman’s mental world--granted individuals are all different in many ways, but there are also fundamental differences in male and female perspectives. At the same time, however, I have much in common with Oates’ Whitey and Jessalyn. Like them, my wife, Nancy, and I are an older couple with adult children of both sexes and, like Jessalyn realized she was, we have been lucky and privileged. For any married couple, especially older parents with adult children, Oates’ novel will offer numerous insights. The five children are all different, unique individuals, and Oates is excellent at depicting their differing personalities.

There is not only much wisdom conveyed about intrafamily relations, but also about death, coping with it, and continuing personal development--all the way up one’s end.

In the character of Hugo, we have someone who is creative, both as a photographer and a poet, although he has not written much in his recent years--among his chief influences were Whitman, Ginsburg, and W. C. Williams. In depicting his creative efforts, Oates conveys some of her own thoughts on the creative process.

And she is a master of creativity. Although her novel is almost 800 pages, I never came across any dull passages. Her writing centers on her characters, and they all hold our interest. In a sense her novel reminds me of Chekhov’s stories, where there is no excess verbiage, where not a word is wasted. High praise, indeed.