THEM is an example of Joyce Carol Oates at her best. It is a beautifully written book about a disturbing subject. Set in the turbulent '60s, it is an earthy depiction of a young woman's struggle to rise above the poverty and trauma of life with an alcoholic father and a murderous young brother. Her life is changed irrevocably by circumstances that are well beyond her control, and continue to affect her family through subsequent generations.
Like so many of her stories, there is no gothic, mythic undercurrent to this tale. The reality of the situation creeps up on its members little by little, until years later one descendent seems to know every secret, and exhibits the same tendencies as previous generations, without their mistakes ever being discussed in the open. Families are a very complex affair, and Oates understands that implicitly. THEM, with its sci-fi title, gives the reader a chance to look at an epic family drama without the cheesy melodrama that usually accompanies such tales.
The '60s, such a turbulent time in American history, has rarely been rendered in such realistic colors. Not everybody was out marching, protesting or doing drugs and making love. The life-altering events of the '60s touched all Americans, young and old, rich and poor, and these situations ended up changing communities and individuals in subtle ways, sometimes adding to the confusion and ill-defined anxiety that defines this and other generations.
Oates gives Jules, the protagonist's son, a frightening and seductive sexuality; he is the great taunter of the '60s, representing the liberation of the time while also exhibiting its evils. He is both good and bad, evil and sensitive, knowing and absolutely clueless. Oates makes the point that he is not just a product of his times, but of his family, of all the things that have happened before him that he knows or doesn't know --- it doesn't matter. The sins of the family follow the bloodline through generations and, in the '60s, these secrets started to eek out into the fabric of everyday American life.
THEM is not only a testament to the creative powers of Joyce Carol Oates, but it also provides a fascinating textbook on family affairs and the way our behavior is sometimes determined by DNA and not exclusively by our social environment. It is a great jumping-off novel for those not familiar with Oates' massive oeuvre.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on December 12, 1984