Joyce Carol Oates's Wonderland Quartet comprises four remarkable novels that explore social class in America and the inner lives of young Americans. In A Garden of Earthly Delights, Oates presents one of her most memorable heroines, Clara Walpole, the beautiful daughter of Kentucky-born migrant farmworkers. Desperate to rise above her haphazard existence of violence and poverty, determined not to repeat her mother's life, Clara struggles for independence by way of her relationships with four very different men: her father, a family man turned itinerant laborer, smoldering with resentment; the mysterious Lowry, who rescues Clara as a teenager and offers her the possibility of love; Revere, a wealthy landowner who provides Clara with stability; and Swan, Clara's son, who bears the psychological and spiritual burden of his mother's ambition.
A masterly work from a writer with "the uncanny ability to give us a cinemascopic vision of her America" (National Review), A Garden of Earthly Delights is the opening stanza in what would become one of the most powerful and engrossing story arcs in literature.
A Garden of Earthly Delights is the first novel in the Wonderland Quartet. The books that complete this acclaimed series, Expensive People, them, and Wonderland, are also available from the Modern Library.
Oates's second novel isn't just being republished as a Modern Library "20th Century Rediscovery" edition; she's completely revised the book and written a new afterword. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
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April 20, 2003
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Excerpt from A Garden of Earthly Delights by Joyce Carol Oates
1 Arkansas. On that day many years ago a rattling Ford truck carrying twenty-nine farmworkers and their children sideswiped a local truck carrying hogs to Little Rock on a rain-slick country highway. It was a shimmering-green day in late May, the Ford truck ended up on its side in a three-foot drainage ditch, and in the hazy rain everyone milled about in the road amid broken glass, a familiar stink of gasoline and a spillage of hog excrement. Yet, among those who hadn’t been hurt, the predominant mood was jocular. Carleton Walpole would long remember: the skidding on the wet blacktop, the noise of brakes like a guinea hen’s shrieking, the sick weightless sensation before impact. The terrified screams of children and women, then the angry shouts of the men. By the time the truck overturned into the ditch most of the younger and more agile of the farmworkers had leapt clear, while the older, the slower, most of the women and younger children, struggled with the tarpaulin roof and had to crawl out on their hands and knees like beasts onto the soft red clay shoulder. Another goddamned “accident”: this wasn’t the first since they’d left Breathitt County, Kentucky, a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t the worst, either. No one appeared to be seriously injured, bleeding or unconscious. “Pearl? Where the hell are you?”—Carleton had been one of the first to jump from the truck, but he was anxious about his wife; she was pregnant, with their third child, and the baby was due soon. “Pearl! Pearl!” Carleton yelled. His heart was beating like something trapped in his rib cage. He was angry, excited. Always you feel that mean little thrill of relief, you aren’t hurt. . . . Though once Carleton had been hurt, the first season he’d gone out on the road, his nose broken in a similar crash and the truck driver who was also the recruiter had set it for Carleton with his fingers—“See, a nose will begin healing right away it’s broke. It ain’t bone it’s cart’lige. If you don’t make it straight it will grow in crooked like a boxer’s nose.” Carleton had laughed to see his new nose grown in just slightly crooked at the bridge, but in a way to give his face more character, he thought, like something carved; otherwise, he thought he looked like everybody else, half the Walpole men, long narrow faces with light lank hair and stubbly bearded chins and squinting bleached-blue eyes that looked as if they reflected the sky, forever. When Carleton moved quickly and jerkily his face seemed sharp as a jackknife, but he could move slowly too; he had inherited someone’s grace—though in him it was an opaque resistance, like a man moving with effort through water. Not that Carleton Walpole gave much of a damn how he looked. He was thirty, not a kid. He had responsibilities. With his broke nose, people joked that Carleton’s looks had improved, he had a swagger now like his hero Jack Dempsey. This time, Carleton hadn’t been hurt at all. A little shaken, and pissed as hell, his dignity ruffled like a rooster that’s been kicked. He’d been squatting on his heels with other men at the rear of the truck chewing tobacco and spitting out onto the blacktop road that stretched behind them like a grimy tongue. Where were they bound for?—Texarkana. That was just a word, a sound. A place on a map Carleton might’ve seen, but could not recall. How many days exactly they’d been on the road, he could not recall. How many weeks ahead, he’d have to ask. (Not Pearl. Used to, Pearl had kept track of such details, now she was letting things slide as bad as the other women.) Well, there was paperwork—somewhere. A contract.