By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco. 320 pages. $26.99
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Reviewed by Judith Musser
Avid readers of Joyce Carol Oates will not be surprised to learn that her new novel, The Sacrifice, is based on news events. As in earlier works - The Falls, which depicts the Love Canal scandals; Blonde, which centers on Marilyn Monroe; Black Water, a story that parallels the 1969 Chappaquiddick car accident involving then-Sen. Edward Kennedy - Oates gleans her story from headlines past and present.
In The Sacrifice, the most obvious connection is to the Tawana Brawley case of the late 1980s. Oates retains most of the facts: Brawley was found in a trash bag, covered in feces, with racial slurs written on her body; she later accused six white men of having raped her.
What is memorable about this book is not its echoes of the Brawley story, but rather what Oates adds, creating new and distinct perspectives. We hear from the neighbor who found Sybilla (the Brawley character); the sister of the police officer who committed suicide; the Hispanic police officer who first questioned Sybilla in the hospital; the medical workers in the ER; and Sybilla's cousin.
One of these additions, however, both instructs and disturbs: the story of Anis, Sybilla's stepfather, a convicted killer of his first wife, a man who beats Sybilla's mother and threatens Sybilla, and who kills two police officers at the end of the novel. He has a terrible, bloody personal history.
Anis' voicebox is damaged because a white police officer once trampled on his throat. When Anis is pulled over by white police, we are reminded of how deadly this encounter can be for a black man. How does a black man get his driver's license out of the glove compartment without being shot? How does he talk to white police officers when, as Oates writes, "silence might be mistaken by the cops for sullen, dangerous. Deferential might be mistaken for mockery"? What if he has to cough or sneeze? "Such sudden movements might cause the police officers to defend themselves by shooting him to death."
Oates poignantly transports this novel to the present, and we are reminded of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. But the frames chosen for The Sacrifice are disturbing. Oates provides a realistic and meaningful encounter between a black man and white police - but its impact dwindles because the story revolves around a lie about white police, and our sympathies for the black man are lessened because he is a violent criminal.