Joyce Carol Oates’ nightmarish new novel – “Daddy Love” – is about the abduction, abuse and irrevocable alteration of a child.
It is dazing in its impact and is, within Oates’ vast canon of dark tales, among the darkest. To read it is, of course, a decision – one Oates knows we will make for the caliber of her narration even if, as may be the case here, some readers feel she goes too far.
For “Daddy Love” is clearly a book begot in horror:
“Upsie-daisy, son! Climb up out of there, come on.
Your new home, Gideon.
Daddy Love has got you.”
Yes, Daddy Love has got not Gideon but Robbie Whitcomb, age 5, a boy wrested from the hand of his mother, Dinah, in the parking ramp of a Detroit-area shopping mall in 2006. Dinah lost her grip on Robbie when she was attacked from behind – and was subsequently run over, dragged by the abductor’s van and left for dead.
“Daddy Love” begins with a replay of those terrible moments as Dinah repeats and relives them, in circles, in her head. She is physically mutilated – as if to wear her anguish – and cannot help but think, again and again:
“We were almost at our car when something hit me – the back of my head – it seemed to fall from the sky like a large bird – like a swan – it was just above me and beating me with its wing – but the wing was sharp like a sword ... he’d gotten Robbie from me and into the van – it happened so fast … I was screaming at them – at him ... I was running after the van screaming ... I could see his face – I could see his grinning teeth – his whiskers ... I wasn’t going to step aside ... I must have thought I could grab the door handle or pound on the windshield with my fist – I could get Robbie back, I thought – and – I guess – he aimed right at me, he ran me down ...”
Dinah and her husband Whit are lost without their intelligent and enchanting child – who becomes the focus of the book, his life of terror chronicled by himself and by his captor, an itinerant preacher who insists on being called Daddy Love, and gives Robbie the Biblical name of Gideon.
Daddy Love is thrilled to have Gideon, his youngest acquisition yet: “It was well known by religious orders that if you secure a child before the age of seven, his soul is yours.”
The boy is resistant – at first – but Daddy Love tames him via a “Wooden Maiden,” a coffinlike device in which he confines Gideon – until Gideon does Daddy Love’s bidding:
“Son, you are safe now. Protected now. We will be home soon. Your new – your destined – home. You will begin the game of Forget ...”
The sex is introduced slowly:
“Daddy Love would love this child tenderly ... There would be not two-ness but only one-ness. This is my body and this is my blood. Take ye and eat...”
This terrible tale is told with Oates’ often dazzling, always compelling prose. But it cries out, quite beyond the skill of its telling, for a reason. Aside from the fact that it may be the closest we will ever come to imagining what goes on in the minds of a captured child, his parents and his captor – all at once – we are hard put to find one.
And worse: Oates bombards us so with Daddy Love’s evil that we run the risk of becoming inured to it,
But still we go on – as Dinah and Whit go on, their selves, their souls, their marriage disassembling. When it has been six years, Diana thinks, “I am forgetting his face”; Whit finds himself “drifting inexorably from Dinah like one in a boat without oars.”
Gideon has grown in the meantime. He is 11 now, and sees himself as two separate individuals – one Daddy Love’s ever-submissive “Son,” the other “Gideon,” a boy with thoughts of his own.
So when the day comes that Daddy Love suggests, “Maybe you’d like a little brother to keep you company, eh? Plenty of room in Daddy Love’s house as in Daddy Love’s heart,” Gideon is far from naïve. A new boy would hardly be meant to keep Gideon company: “The new brother would be younger than 11, Gideon seemed to know.”
As a psychological study, there is merit here – as Gideon develops, his parents decline and Daddy Love continues in his diabolical ways. But to what end? Gideon will be found – in all the legal senses of that word – and returned to Dinah and Whit. But this is no Elizabeth Smart or even Jaycee Dugard story – and the book’s finish will be as sad and shocking as its start.
We may find ourselves admiring the way Oates holds our attention, no matter how grim or graphic her subject.
But “Daddy Love” begs two questions: Is Oates, once again, stretching our limits, putting a mirror to something that happens far more often than we know, something that could be happening down your street or mine? Or is Oates simply telling a horror story and, in that case, why would an author of Oates’ stature veer off the road marked “literature” to dabble in something so gratuitous as “Daddy Love”?
By Joyce Carol Oates
The Mysterious Press/Grove/Atlantic
279 pages, $24
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.