Sunday, September 8, 2013

FOXFIRE shines.

ISBN-10: 0452272319
ISBN-13: 9780452272316 
Published: Plume, 08/01/1994 
Pages: 336 
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I stopped in no less than five bookstores in six days, and in the very first one (The Booksmith on upper Haight), I was drawn like a magnet to Joyce Carol Oates' Foxfire. I'll attribute this to several things: the hot-pink, DIY punk style cover (different than the one picture in the link above); the staff recommendation, which will push me over the edge if I'm ever on the fence about trying a book; and the author, whose spooky prose (while not always consistent) is always compelling. Oates has written on everything from family life and relationships to a set of gothic horror short stories (Give Me Your Heart: Tales of Mystery and Suspense) that greatly informed my own fiction thesis -- and that's being generous. She's one of the most prolific novelists writing contemporary fiction, teaches at Columbia University, and has a dedicated spot in my shrine of sheroes.

Now that we've got all of my undying devotion out of the way, I'll get to the specifics of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. The first few pages of this 1994 novel seemed like a major departure from her typical style, but as soon as the antiquated politics of the story's 1950s, upstate New York setting begin to sink in, the horror within these young protagonists' lives becomes all too real. Maybe that's what was so charming about this particular volume, as opposed to the collections I've read -- instead of the outlandish, this book is solidly rooted in the utterly plausible.

Foxfire, whose prose falls somewhere between beat poetry and the diary of a high school girl, follows the lives of a menagerie of teens who, despite their grit, audacity, and exuberance, are trapped within the confines of their tiny, stagnant town. Like most backwoods places in the 1950s, they deal with the sort of characters whose morality is ultra-conventional and whose attitude towards familial and social life is patriarchal: men should rule everything, women are meant to be docile, and children should be quiet and well-behaved. Judgments about each girl's family -- poor, crazy, filthy, what have you -- get volleyed about on every page, and as a reader, it's easy to feel trapped by the book's historical and physical location. At any given moment, the bottom can fall out, and a spiteful adult can send these girls' world into a tailspin. The constant threat of juvenile detention, which in Foxfire's setting means unchecked abuse of all sorts, looms ominously. This book is the modern woman's nightmare, or at least it's mine, yet I found myself carrying it to the beach, reading it on the BART, toting it with me through every terminal of the airport until I finished it back in North Carolina late one night.

I won't give away anymore plot points, but I'll encourage you to give this title a gander. Foxfire encompasses the rebellion of punk rock, much like it's fantastic zine-like cover, but the substance within outshines the cool aesthetic of its premise -- Oates puts us in the front seat of Foxfire's lightning-bolt-covered car, hurtling towards an unknown darkness that's all too real in its potential to horrify.

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