Dark side of bully boy masculinity

Rape: A Love Story

Joyce Carol Oates

Atlantic, 9.99

THIS dark little fable of masculinity is set in Niagara Falls in the mid-1990s. Teena Maguire, a young widow, is gang-raped and left for dead in a park. Her 12-year-old daughter Bethie escapes the attackers and hides, but hears the whole assault. The book deals with the aftermath: Maguire's slow recovery and the vicious rumours that swirl around the town.

The hero is a police officer, John Dromoor, who sets out to get justice through brute force after the legal system fails Maguire. The love story of the title is that of Bethie, who experiences "the visceral wallop of infatuation" for the vigilante Dromoor, though it's a love that goes unspoken. The summer becomes an education for her in men and misogyny.

She has learned that to be an adult woman is to be a target for violence. Oates spells out how the delirious savagery of the gang, high on crystal meth, was focused: "They had torn your mother's clothes from her body as if females' clothes infuriated them. They spat in your mother's face as if her beauty infuriated them."

The hissing gossip that reaches Bethie's ears labels Maguire a bad mother and a slut; the hot-shot defence lawyer alleges she is a prostitute who "serviced" the gang then attacked them when they paid her the agreed price. Poison-pen notes arrive, and pornographic graffiti appears on Bethie's school locker.

Oates does not offer the men much redemption. Maguire's boyfriend Casey is too scared of his own maleness to comfort her. Terrified he will hurt her just by touching her, he eventually returns to his estranged wife.

The judge is a superior bully, the defence lawyer "a shark". The rapists are animals and thugs - one of them a nascent paedophile. Even Dromoor scares his own wife. He may have baby bootees hanging in his car, but he is also a brutalised Gulf War vet who finds carrying a gun gives him "a tinge in the groin".

In Iraq, "he saw his soul curl up and die like an inch worm in the hot sand". He is as tight-lipped as a Clint Eastwood antihero. It seems it takes one ultra-male archetype to deliver a very male justice to all the others, and Oates makes no effort to find the roots of the misogyny in American culture.

There is not much sisterhood either, though Maguire's mother is a doughty defender of her daughter. The portrayal of Maguire's hapless female lawyer, called with ironic ambiguity the "female prosecutor", is vaguely satirical.

The book is sketchy and bleak, and somewhat dashed off, like the byproduct of a larger, more realised project. The language is unshowy, but the imagery is of sledgehammer unsubtlety. The rapists have tattoos of knives and snakes, and the boathouse where the attack happens is decorated with friezes of sword-wielding soldiers and blank-faced mermaids.

The feminism is almost crude. Perhaps Oates is mulling a bigger novel on the same theme - more representative of her considerable talent.