- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
If there’s a social phenomenon, social problem or dysfunctional family that Joyce Carol Oates hasn’t examined, be patient: She’s probably writing about it this very moment, on a legal pad, in longhand. She’s poring over “DSM” for psychological problems and devouring Google and Wikipedia for everything else (just kidding, I think). She dissected Marilyn Monroe in 2000 in “Blonde’. the best-ever book about Monroe. She deconstructed the JonBenet Ramsey murder in “My Sister, My Love” (2008). She explored the dark sides of interpersonal relationships in her 25th short story collection “Dear Husband” and now, in her latest novel, “Daddy Love” (The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Inc., 240 pages, $24) Oates uses her unexcelled writing skills to shed light on the nightmare of every parent, the abduction of a child.
As expected, Oates in “Daddy Love” crafts characters with whom we can identify: Dinah Whitcomb of Ypsilanti, Michigan, seemingly has everything. A loving and successful husband, and a smart, precocious young son named Robbie. Her mother lives in a more affluent suburb of Detroit than Ypsilanti, the home of Eastern Michigan University, with what she thinks has better schools, but Dinah and her DJ husband Perry are perfectly happy eschewing hoity-toity Ann Arbor, or Troy or Birmingham for Y-Town. One day in 2007, their worlds are shattered when Dinah is attacked in the parking lot of a shopping mall and Robbie is taken, with Dinah suffering crippling, life-threatening injuries when she is run over by the kidnapper’s van, mangling her body nearly beyond repair.
The kidnapper, a part-time Preacher named Chester Cash, calls himself Daddy Love, as he has abducted, tortured, and raped several young boys into being his lover and as well as his ‘son’. He confines Robbie in a device called an Wooden Maiden, in essence a small coffin, and renamed him ‘Gideon’. Daddy Love slowly brainwashes ‘Gideon’ into believing that he is Daddy Love’s real son, and any time the boy resists or rebels it is met with punishment beyond his wildest nightmares.
Dinah recovers slowly from her wounds, but she never gives up hope that Robbie will be found and reunited with her and Perry. He marriage suffers, as do most marriages in novels and short stories by Oates, but the couple never breaks up: Both Perry and Dinah continue to hope that Robbie will be found.
As Robbie grows older, he becomes more aware of just how monstrous Daddy Love truly is. Though as a small boy he as terrified of what might happen if he disobeyed Daddy Love, Robbie begins to realize that the longer he stays in the home of this demon, the greater chance he’ll end up like Daddy Love’s other ‘sons’ who were never heard from again. Somewhere within this tortured young boy lies a spark of rebellion…and soon he sees just what lengths he must go to in order to have any chance at survival.
It’s a simple and all too common story, told with prose of a journalistic flatness that makes it even more horrific. I haven’t met a Joyce Carol Oates story or novel that I didn’t like and “Daddy Love” is no exception.
In my review of “Dear Husband” (link: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/090509-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html) I wrote:
“I’ve always felt that Oates is the ultimate horror story writer, because she writes about the everyday, ordinary horror most of us face at some point in our lives. Not every 17-year-old troubled teen has a mother like Quincy Smartt in “Cutty Sark,” but Kit Smartt is struggling to deal with his tell-all mom in this gem of a story. He’s been shuttled from one private boarding school to another and now his celebrity mom wants to befriend him four years after she left her marriage to her wealthy physician husband and her bewildered 13-year-old son.”
About the Author
Joyce Carol Oates, born in Lockport, NY in 1938, is the author of more than 70 books, including novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, and criticism, including the national bestsellers “We Were the Mulvaneys” and “Blonde”. Among her many honors are the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the National Book Award. Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
Publisher’s website: www.groveatlantic.com