cover image My Heart Laid Bare

My Heart Laid Bare

Joyce Carol Oates. Dutton Books, $26.95 (420pp) ISBN 978-0-525-94442-3

Is there a rogue gene? Such is the intriguing premise of Oates's frisky and bitingly ironic 28th novel (after What I Lived For), in which a dynasty of confidence artists is launched by a convicted felon in 18th-century London. The scene then shifts to western New York in 1909, when the mysterious Dr. Washburn Frelicht is forced at gunpoint to surrender his racetrack winnings. Meanwhile, not far away, a penniless and pregnant young woman extorts money from her dead lover's family. Frelicht (aka Abraham Licht, consummate con man) knows the robber is Elisha, the black boy he adopted in infancy; the supposedly unfortunate young woman is Licht's daughter Millicent. Enter Licht's biological son Thurston, engaged to marry a wealthy widow, and his evil brother Harwood, who wants a piece of the action. Harwood murders the widow and flees, leaving his brother to answer for the crime. Banished to Colorado by his father, Harwood meets his mirror image in a wealthy heir from Philadelphia who yearns to reaffirm his manhood in the wilderness. Harwood obliges and the heir disappears, only to be reborn in the biggest scam of all. When Millicent falls for Elisha, Abe disowns the young man. Bitter and resentful, Elisha revolts against his white upbringing and becomes a radical. Gradually, the three mothers of Abe's assorted children abandon him, even as he bemoans the fact that his youngest son, a musical prodigy of gentle temperament, is ill-suited for the Game. Not surprisingly, this complex fabrication has its minor pitfalls: Abe has an infuriating habit of talking to himself, aliases fly faster than speeding bullets and the plot's many twists occasionally confuse. Still, it's impossible to resist the pull of Oates's lush narrative. Abraham Licht is unforgettable. As chief orchestrator of a family's misbehaviors, he becomes the quintessential silver fox, a rogue to remember. (June)