Joyce Carol Oates’ “High Lonesome”: Techniques

Oates and Hemingway:
The Way It Is;
An Analysis of Joyce Carol Oates’
Writing Techniques in
“High Lonesome”

In his introduction to Fitzgerald and Hemingway: A Dangerous Friendship, Matthew J. Brucolli says:

One thing shared by the work of Fitzgerald and Hemingway —although achieved by different methods — is a concern with “the way it was…” Fitzgerald observed: “What family resemblance there is between we three as writers is the attempt that crops up in our fiction from time to time to recapture the exact feeling of a moment in time and space exemplified by people rather than things…”

My contention is that Joyce Carol Oates is also a writer that is concerned with recreating in her fiction “the way it is.” Her writing style is a reflection of her reality and a contributing force to the meaning and context of every story, one of the essential and sometimes subliminal parts comprising their greater whole. And, Joyce Carol Oates does for internal reality what Hemingway did for external reality. Both are experimental, both are detail-crazed, both are objective in their presentations, both are unsentimental, and both use much of the same methodology (abrupt rhythms, run-on sentences, understatement, and objectivity) from different starting points.
With these elements and comparisons in mind, consider this segment of Oates’ short-story “High Lonesome”: (Oates, p. 145)

So Sable is fanning herself with her hand cooing, Ohhh man am I hot, I bet you are hot too, I know a real cool place, up the road here’s the E-Z Inn you know where that is mister? in this husky singsong voice like Dolly Parton beating her eyelashes at him so the old guy is smiling, trying to hide his stained teeth but smiling, squirming a little like he’s being tickled, happy suddenly this is an actual flirtation, this is an innocent conversation with a woman who seems attracted to him, seems to like him, he isn’t thinking exactly where he is, why he’s here, what his purpose must have been driving here, north of Herkimer out to Route 33 and the Strip across in the next county a twelve-mile detour on his way back to the farm from picking up the repaired sump pump, no more than he’s thinking right now of his blood pressure he can feel pounding in a band across his head, makes the inside of his head feel like a balloon blown up close to bursting, heart racing and lurching in his chest like a pounding fist, almost he feels dreamy, he isn’t drunk but dreamy, a pint of Four Roses in the glove compartment he’s wondering should he ask the beet-hair woman would she like a drink? thinking maybe he will, he’s wanting to grab the woman’s hand and kiss it, kiss the fingers, a freckled forearm glowing with sweat, some kind of sexy red heart-tattoo crawling up the arm, it’s surprising to him, so wonderful, the woman is smiling at him, nobody smiles at Pop Olafsson especially no female smiles at him in this way, mostly he remembers Agnes scowling at him, staring at him like she was angry with him, crinkling her nose and turning her eyes from him acknowledging him not at all.

Oates presents and compresses internal and external action, point of view, details, past present and future in one segment of a scene that takes 10 times longer to read in “real” time than it took to happen in “story time.” Her trademark detail is there, adding to the themes of the story about old Pop Olafsson (note subtext “oaf”) being trapped by a sting operation by local police and his own cousin-in-law. At times Oates is observing, at times she is contemplating, at times she is remembering past events and experiences through her character. Oates puts all of these elements together and makes them happen simultaneously — her scant use of punctuation and her use of small letters versus capital letters at the end of phrases where she does use some punctuation add to the feeling of compression and timelessness, like all these things are happening at once, chaotic yet with distinct threads to the past, present and even future.
First we have Sable the cop observed in her undercover garb and persona. We know it is an act on her part, but Pop does not — but is the experience any less real for him? Pop shows his naivity, his ignorance in the ways of the world outside of the farm, and his susceptibility — up until now we’ve known him as a good but eccentric man. Pop is pulling some deception himself, trying to hide his rotten teeth from the girl. The deception is even deeper at this point because the cousin the deputy is in the stake-out vehicle listening to the conversation in order to make the arrest, and does not yet know that the john in this case is his uncle. Does that make any of these “realities” any less real? “In this husky singing voice like Dolly Parton” we get a sense of the country setting and culture; but in that image we are also reminded that Pop Olafsson himself is a singer: (Oates, pp. 138-139)
On the veranda summer nights, Pop sat with his banjo. People laughed at him saying Pop thinks he’s Johnny Cash, well Pops wasn’t nowhere near trying to sound like Johnny Cash. I don’t know who the hell Pop sounded like — nobody, maybe. His own weird self. He’s picking at the banjo, he’s making this high old lonesome sound like a ghost tramping the hills. It wasn’t singing, more like talking, the kind of whiney rambling a man does who’s alone a lot, talks to animals in the barn, and to himself…
The songs Pop sang, I wish I’d listened to. They had women’s names in them, sometimes. One of them was about a cuckoo-bird. One was about a train wreck. These were songs picked up from growing up in Drummond County. He’d got the banjo in a pawn shop. He never had any music lessons. Most of the songs, he didn’t know all the words to so he’d hum in his high-pitched way rocking from side to side and a dreamy light passing over his face. A banjo isn’t like a guitar, looks like it’s made of a tin pie plate….

Our remembering this reference about Pop singing is no accident. Oates supplied us this past and she manipulates our recollections. Our memories are spurred by her word choices in that later passage. Suddenly we realize that she has already told us what is going to happen, foreshadowed the central conflict for us, and is now reinforcing it with this second reference. The crux of the story is about Pop, we think; family but not-family, Pop/father but not blood father, singer but not-singer. The place references (Drummond County, the Strip) are contrasted. Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton are paired. From Pops’ songs, a woman is involved, as is a fool (a cock-old), as is a train-wreck. Music itself is aesthetic, one of the highest expressions of man and his being, and “a dreamy light” forewarns us of Pops’ confused state of mind and his passing. Oates is preparing us for the fall of the man, we think — which is not surprising to us in the police sting operation, because someone must fall, but is surprising in that Pop was both the perpetrator and victim. As it turns out, we feel a little of the betrayal that Pop feels, which is even more to the crux of the story of Oates’ portrayal of reality in fiction.
Here too, in this passage, Oates compresses past, present and future time though her writing technique for effect — the effect of sharing her reality, that things happen all at once, that there is rhyme and reason for our thoughts, as disjointed as they first appear, as they happen within the blink of an eye that she has slowed down to show us, to share with us. One is reminded of any number of similar passages in Hemingway where he shows us “the way it is” by piling on details and actions and thoughts in a long string, in passages that run on yet are tied together by the character’s string of thought.
The irony is that to show this reality, both Oates and Hemingway take much longer to show us than actual events took to happen. (Which is “more real”?) For both authors it appears chaotic, yet it is a very carefully selected chaos: Why do we need to know that a banjo is different from a guitar and looks like a dinner plate? Why is it important what errand Pop was on, that he drove twelve miles out of his way, that he picked up a repaired sump pump, that he has a bottle of whiskey in the glove box, that he is scorned by women and especially Agnes, who acknowledges him without acknowledgement? Why? Because this is the hard-core reality, this is the way it is, this is the way people think, this is the way time really passes in these situations, this is the diverse range of things one thinks about in abundantly stressful situations.
Let’s take that last statement from the quoted passage (“A banjo isn’t a guitar…”) as an excuse to review a technique of Oates’ that is less prevalent in Hemingway. Oates states the negative as a way of explaining the present, i.e., defines many things by what they are not. A large segment of the passage first quoted above describes what Pop is not thinking about: he “isn’t thinking exactly where he is,” no more than he’s thinking” of his blood pressure and pounding head (foreshadowing the later hammer blows to Drake), “almost he feels dreamy, he isn’t drunk but dreamy,” (note the word repetition for emphasis and connectivity, stream of consciousness), but he is “wondering” if he should ask her if she wants a drink, “thinking maybe he will.” Oates knows that the mind not only doesn’t distinguish between past, present and future memories and/or projections, but the mind also doesn’t distinguish between what is not happening and what is happening: if the imagination conjures an image up, it is reality. Thus selected events that are not happening reveal as much about the character and the situation as those events that are happening — and one could make an argument, especially in this passage, that the events that didn’t happen yet are recalled/imagined in detail tell us more about the character than those events that did happen (a further expression of reality?). In fact, we (like the character relaying the story) get confused about what really happened and what didn’t, have it all run together in our heads, and blur the lines between action and perceived action. In short, we experience the character’s and, by extension, Oates’ sense of reality. We not only see it, we feel it.
Let’s look at one other technique that Oates uses freely to present and support her reality through “High Lonesome.” In the opening description of Pop, Oates tells us “the old guy is smiling, trying to hide his stained teeth but smiling, squirming a little like he’s being tickled, happy suddenly this is an actual flirtation,” Pops is “happy suddenly”: he is both “happy,” he is “happy suddenly,” and he is “happy. Suddenly (realizing, thinking) this is an actual flirtation” versus an imagined one. We get three meanings from two words. In the description of Pop in the strip, Oates says, “…mostly he remembers Agnes scowling at him, staring at him like she was angry with him, crinkling her nose and turning her eyes from him acknowledging him not at all.” Here, Agnes acknowledges Pops by “not” acknowledging him: the placement of “not” after “acknowledging him” makes this double-entendre work. In this example, Oates uses a “non-reality” negative to portray a telling trait of Agnes. Oates uses order (arrangement) to add a double meaning to these phrases, one that is easy to blur together as one reads the passage punctuated as it is. Intentional? It doesn’t really matter to the literature whether it was conscious or unconscious on Oates’ part, but I’d bet on “conscious”.
Finally we return to the description of Pops’ music, and to this closing event by the narrator: (Oates, p. 139)
A guy from school came by to pick me up one night, there’s the old man out on the veranda with that damn plunky banjo singing some whiney song like a sick tomcat so Rory makes some crack about my grandpa and my face goes hot, Fuck you Pop ain’t no grandpa of mine, he what you call in-law.
Didn’t hardly care if Pop heard me, I was feeling so pissed.

The double-entendre is “Fuck you Pop ain’t no grandpa of mine.” Punctuated the way it is, it could be either “Fuck you” meaning Rory (surface meaning, chastising Rory for making fun of a family member) or “Fuck you Pop,” chastising Pop for embarrassing the narrator in front of his friend. We also get a foreshadowing of the narrator’s quick rise to anger.
Which meaning did Oates intend? Both. Through this carefully-constructed sentence, Oates reveals to us the central conflict of the story, and foreshadows the resolving action. Young Daryl shows us his conflicted feelings toward Pop: Pop is his grandpa, the only one that stuck around to serve the purpose, his mother’s wife’s partner; he is family, but then again he is not-family. He is “in law,” as opposed to “out of law,” which is where Daryl eventually ends up with Drake for his slight of Pop at the Strip — kills him with a hammer, strips him of his dignity and identity (steals the deputy’s gun, pretty phallic, eh?).
The imagery comes home when Daryl catches himself singing Pop’s song at the end of the story: (Oates, p. 152)

I’m stumbling over Drake on the floor twitching like there’s electric current jolting him but feebler and feebler. Making this high sharp lonesome sound like Pop Olafsson singing, so weird Drake has got to be about dead but making this high sharp lonesome sound it finally comes to me, is me, myself. Not Drake but me, Daryl, is making this sound.

Daryl also carries with him a symbol of both his incompleteness and ambiguity toward Pop through the stub finger (“It’s a fact there’s phantom pain”), and through his continued legacy: (Oates, p. 153)

All this is so long ago now, you’d think it would be forgotten. But people in Herkimer remember, of a certain age. I need to switch off the flashlight and get back to the house, such a mood comes over me here. This lonesome feeling I’d make a song of, if I knew how.

We’re reminded especially in the end that Daryl is our narrator, that the whole story was told from him, from his point of view — and that the story is a reminiscence. He is the character that changed the most. Lonesome indeed. High lonesome. High price to pay for loyalty to family.

Reality. Truth. Time. Oates tells us in High Lonesome: “Like that it happens. Happens faster than you can figure it out.” (p. 147) These words could very well also describe her writing style, describe her attempt to portray her reality in her fiction, so that readers not only see it but physically feel it, like Hemingway and others that tell it “the way it is.”

Brucolli, Matthew J. Fitzgerald and Hemingway: A Dangerous Friendship. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1994.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “High Lonesome.” High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories, 1966 – 2006. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.


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