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Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.


Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.

As readers approach this weighty tome of a novel --- all 787 pages of it --- they may think that it is too large to tackle. Unfortunately, they will be missing out on one of the most personal reading experiences of the year. Joyce Carol Oates' NIGHT. SLEEP. DEATH. THE STARS. is an open window to a family that could be your own --- full of the same dysfunction, fears and prejudices as yours. A novel that depicts a family of seven dealing with the death of one of their own requires the time to truly delve into each and every family member, and the end result is like reading half a dozen smaller novels, each providing a different point of view.

To begin with, I must reveal the impetus for the unique title:

This is thy hour, O soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

At one point towards the end of the novel, a character recites Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight” and calls it one of the most important American works of art. Since this is predominantly a book about loss, I considered the title as well as the poem to be symbolic of the grief process. You can read this wonderful novel and think about what the title means to you.

The story is set in Westchester County, which is just north of New York City. Driving home from work is John Earle "Whitey" McClaren, a highly respected man who runs his own family business. Approaching retirement age, he is already making plans with his wife Jessalyn once he is able to ride off into the sunset. He is not worried about the future of the business as his firstborn son, Thom, works as the number two guy from their location in Rochester in western New York. On this typically uneventful ride home, Whitey notices something that makes him quickly pull his car over to the side. Two police officers appear to be manhandling a dark-skinned individual beside his vehicle. Whitey attempts to intervene, but tragedy ensues. Both Whitey and the man --- who is later revealed to be Azim Murthy, an Indian doctor --- are beaten and zapped with tasers. Whitey's heart stops, and Dr. Murthy tries to revive him.

" of the most personal reading experiences of the year.... NIGHT. SLEEP. DEATH. THE STARS. is an exhilarating work that will challenge and frustrate readers."

After reading the first chapter, you will think that Joyce Carol Oates has a crystal ball at home to have the book release at the same time that the country is focused on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. It gave me chills. The McClarens are informed by the officers that Whitey is in the hospital; he had a stroke while driving, and they pulled over to assist him.

Whitey’s family keeps vigil beside him. The matriarch is the aforementioned Jessalyn, a pure housewife who is younger than her husband and tirelessly worked to raise their five very different children. I already referenced Thom, the heir to the family business with a tendency towards vanity and over-reaction. The eldest daughter is Beverly, who has a family with children of her own and can be overly emotional. Lorene is the middle child and currently works as a high school principal. Only her therapist truly knows the real Lorene. Virgil is the artistic and flighty child, never really holding down any specific job and presently making a living as an artist and a sculptor. He also never sticks around very long and is prone to disappearing when things get too “real” for him. The youngest child, and the one with the best future ahead of her, is Sophia, who has a PhD and is a research scientist. She eagerly moves back into the family home to support her mother during this time.

It is easy to refer to all of these middle-aged characters as children, because when they are stretched to their emotional thresholds, they all seem to retreat to their most base behaviors. Whitey eventually regains consciousness, but is not in full control of his mental faculties, and his speech is severely slurred. Only Thom starts to suspect that something else may have happened, that perhaps the story they were given was not completely on the level. He is shrewd enough to take photos of his father and contacts an attorney, pointing out marks that look like taser stuns and are not the result of his airbag injuring him when he supposedly ran his vehicle off the road.

At this point, I felt like things were going to devolve the way they did in another great book, Tom Wolfe's THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, where the truth about a tragic incident snowballs out of control, consuming everyone in sight. That thinking would be wrong as NIGHT. SLEEP. DEATH. THE STARS. is a different type of novel. Sadly, the family vigil and a ton of prayers are not enough, as Whitey succumbs to his injuries and passes away in the hospital.

The rest of the novel is a true family saga, a look into a portal that provides readers direct access to all of the McClarens and what is going on in their minds. Grief can do crazy things to people, and some never recover from it. Thom continues to try to get things going on the legal front --- a task that his siblings gladly leave him to handle --- while also temporarily relocating from Rochester to Hammond to take over the family business. The only part of the story that confused me was Dr. Murthy’s response. For some reason, he chooses to remain aloof to these circumstances and actually takes out an order of restraint against Thom, who tries to confront him at his hospital. I wanted to scream at Thom to push for a subpoena that would force Murthy to testify in the case against the Hammond police department, but it never happens.

Jessalyn goes into a strange grieving period that is soon --- and, in her children's minds, far too soon --- ended when she begins seeing Hugo Martinez, an artist colleague of Virgil's. They are not fond of their mother being with a Puerto Rican man who they feel is taking advantage of her. Hugo is enjoying the success of his most recent portrait, which features Jessalyn and is named “Untitled: Widow.” Beverly and Thom are at the forefront of badgering their mother and playing the role of her conscience during her time with him.

Meanwhile, Lorene is dealing with her grief by making decisions at her school that anger and alienate most of her staff. She also gets aggressive to the point of almost losing her current therapist. Virgil continues to bumble through life trying to find himself and now taking on the additional guilt of being the cause of Hugo entering their mother's life. Lastly, Sophia steps away from her role as a research scientist to move in with Jessalyn and keep an eye on her. She also has an uncomfortable confrontation with a member of the Hammond police force when she gets pulled over and is subtly threatened because she is a McClaren and part of the lawsuit with which Thom is pushing forward.

The final section of the novel takes place in the Galapagos Islands and details how one of the McClarens decides to get far away from everything and start his or her life over. I will allow readers to discover for themselves which character it is.

NIGHT. SLEEP. DEATH. THE STARS. is an exhilarating work that will challenge and frustrate readers. Life is unpredictable; how we handle difficult and stressful moments determines who we are and where we will go next. Here, we get to observe from afar how one family decides to respond to their own grief and what each member will do with the rest of their lives.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on June 12, 2020

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.
by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Publication Date: June 8, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 800 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 006279759X
  • ISBN-13: 9780062797599