Point me in the direction of a book written by an unreliable narrator, and chances are I’ll want to read it, and that brings me to Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates. First the disclaimer: I’m not a fan of this author’s novels–although I like some of her short stories, so I hesitated when I saw this.
Jack of Spades is narrated by best-selling author Andrew J. Rush who lives with his wife, Irina in a prestigious home in Harbourton, New Jersey. Almost immediately we can tell that there’s something a little off about Rush, for while he appears almost gushingly humble and self-deprecating, he never misses an opportunity to slip in self-flattery even as he tries to paint himself as a nice, normal man, a pillar of the community. He describes himself as “the most famous of local residents,” and with 28 books to his credit, this is no doubt true. He writes “best-selling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances.”
Here’s where the cracks begin to appear in Andrew’s self-portrait, for while he’s busy emphasizing that his books are in good taste, then he reveals that he writes an entirely different type of book under the pseudonym: Jack of Spades, “born out of my restlessness with the success of Andrew J. Rush.” These books have a cult-type popularity, are extremely violent, sexist, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific.” The local library refuses to stock any titles by Jack of Spades, so Rush donates copies.
So right away, we have a paradox: Rush goes to great lengths to continually explain how his books don’t offend, don’t cross any lines, but then he also produces, secretly, this whole other line of books that are offensive and written in extremely bad taste. We can only conclude that Rush is a very complicated man who needs to hide his more vicious, violent side beneath the surface of both his personal and professional life.
But is Rush a nice guy at home? As layers of the story drop away, we see Irina through Rush’s eyes. Once she was a promising writer, but now she teaches at a small school. Even though Rush frequently prefaces the word, ‘wife’ with the term “dear,” there’s violence, dominance and control behind his attitude, and that violence occasionally seeps through the surface when she questions her husband or suddenly appears in the areas of the house that are more or less forbidden to her.
Soon after we were married, Irina gave up writing. I had been her most enthusiastic reader and had continued to encourage her, going through drafts of stories and novels, but something hesitant and self-doubting had crept into her sense of herself as a writer. Gently I admonished her–“Darling, you care too much for precision and perfection. There’s no need to polish each damned sentence–just say what you want to say.”
But Irina grew ever more shy about her writing. I hope it wasn’t because I insisted upon reading everything she wrote, and offering my heartfelt, sincere, and sympathetic critiques.
It doesn’t take too long before you realize that the veneer of nice guy and good husband (and what about those estranged children?) is stretched thin and that Rush could explode at any minute. The name ‘Jack of Spades’ is a pseudonym, but it’s also a label for Andrew’s dangerously violent alter ego.
The pivotal incident occurs when Rush is served with a summons to appear at the local courthouse. With a very nice touch, the summons is misspelled, and Rush, for a moment, imagines that there’s some mistake–surely the summons is meant for ‘Andwer J. Rash,’ whoever he is, and not him. But no … as it turns out, he’s being accused by some local nut of plagiarism–and not just plagiarism; he’s also being accused of actually breaking into someone’s home and stealing her unpublished manuscripts.
This accusation sparks a violent turn of events in Rush’s life. So far, he’s barely managed to keep the more violent side of his personality under control. The civil suit tests that ‘nice guy’ veneer to the limit.
There are many. many five-star reviews of Jack of Spades out there. For this reader, in the minority, the book doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Henry Sutton’s brilliant: Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s wonderfully nasty A Pleasure and a Calling, I’d feel differently, but both Hogan and Sutton take the intricacies of the unreliable narrator to new levels; Jack of Spades does not. The narrative exposition lacks subtlety. Both Henry Sutton and Phil Hogan constructed windows in the lives of two very different, cunning, psychopathic narrators, and while we read about the actions of these men with fascinated horror, it’s to both Hogan and Sutton’s credit that we can acknowledge the nasty intelligence and craftiness of their protagonists as they create mayhem for other people. In the case of Andrew Rush, there’s nothing to admire–not even the bestsellers. Being in his mind is an unpleasant chore.
Jack of Spades is at its best in its references to Stephen King. Andrew Rush is constantly compared to King. This comparison to Stephen King obviously bugs the hell out of Rush who tries to get some recognition from King, and then later he plays a nasty trick involving King that seems both tongue-in-cheek and also references how King attracts the nuts for some reason. While Andrew Rush can’t help but be flattered by the comparisons to King, there’s a niggling annoyance there that Stephen King is richer and much more famous:
With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media–Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.
Of course, I was flattered. sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages–(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)-I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas–unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.
But who’s counting, right?