Author: Joyce Carol Oates
First published: 1987
Locale: A city in upstate New York
Plot: Psychological realism
Time: The 1950's
Enid Maria Stevick, the youngest daughter of Hannah and Lyle Stevick. Although only fifteen years old, she embarks on a clandestine love affair, with her father's half brother Felix. This secret, obsessional relationship undermines her already precarious sense of self, which is split into two parts. The first self is Enid Maria, the “A” student, obedient daughter, and talented musician; the second self is called “Angel-face” and is a wild, daring sensualist whose erotic wishes draw her closer and closer to madness and death. As a result of her split personality, Enid is drawn to the charismatic Felix as if by powers beyond her control. It is Angel-face who is attracted to transgression, criminality, and sneaky thrills. She grows in power and knowledge during the affair with the dangerous, violent Felix. This is an intense sexual relationship from which cruelty is inseparable and that overcomes Enid as a kind of sickness. She is thrown into even greater turmoil when she discovers that she is pregnant and must undergo an abortion. When Felix breaks off the relationship, Enid attempts suicide. Enid Maria emerges from this traumatic episode determined to flee her small town and is admitted into a prestigious Rochester music school. It is the Angel-face side of herself who keeps various memories of the dark side of life in Port Oriskany and who tells Enid what must be remembered from the world she leaves behind.
Felix Stevick, the younger half brother of Lyle. A former professional prizefighter, Felix has a history of aggression and criminality. He had to quit the ring because he could not master his fear of death, and his character has been shaped by his experience as a boxer. For Felix, boxing means living on a purely instinctual, physical level and allowing all of his impulses to crush and to dominate to come into play. His incestuous relationship with his niece Enid, a teenage girl half his age, also is informed by the values of the boxing ring. His predatory instincts allow no room for sympathetic feeling, and he feels that he is above the demands of conventional morality. His is a love/hate relationship with Enid, begun impulsively when he was intoxicated and excited by her youthful sensuality. It takes on a life of its own that neither can control. Even outside the ring, whether with Enid or as a shady businessman whose dealings are largely with the underworld, Felix carries with him an aura of violence and is surrounded by brutality and death. His protégé, Jo-Jo Pearl, is killed in the ring because of the influence of Felix's underworld business interests. His partner, Al Samson, also becomes a victim of the mob, and Felix himself beats a pimp and in turn is savagely beaten by Jo-Jo's father. Like Enid, Felix leaves Port Oriskany, settling down with a wife somewhere else.
Lyle Stevick, a furniture dealer, husband, and father of four. He is stable, kind, and gentle but also ineffectual, even a failure. He is a great reader. When he notes that the land mass of the communist countries is larger than that of the United States, he is branded a communist sympathizer by his conservative community. Although he builds a bomb shelter in his basement to defend against the threat of nuclear warfare, Lyle ironically is unable to protect his family from what happens to them as they grow up in changing times. Although he is mild-mannered and weak, he and his wife are a model of comfortable domestic happiness, in contrast with the insanity of Enid's love affair with her Uncle Felix.
Warren Stevick, Enid's brother. He undergoes physical and mental trauma while serving in Korea and emerges as an early protester against nuclear weapons. In his idealistic devotion to Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, and in his unalloyed goodness, he is another counterweight to the violent Felix.
Jo-Jo Pearl, a tough young prizefighter, and protégé of Felix. Trusting in Felix, he dies in the ring as a result of underworld manipulation.
Al Samson, Felix's increasingly erratic business partner. Together they engage in sundry shady deals. Living by the law of the underworld jungle, the increasingly weak and sickly Samson becomes the prey of other mobsters.
Hannah Stevick, Enid's mother. She organizes her life around her church, home, and children, but as a busy mother of four, she is not always in touch with her fragile youngest daughter, Enid.