“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” takes its title from the Jonathan Edwards Great Awakening sermon published in 1741, and that mentions hell about 50 times. It’s only an allusion in the Joyce Carol Oates story, but it’s echoed in the context her characters are contending with, and in the actual wildfire hellfire that demolishes half their neighborhood, but not the house of the protagonist, Luce, who wears a mask to protect herself against pollution. The story is thick with the topicality of global warming and a dying planet, but through the eyes of Luce and her husband, a late middle-aged couple surrounded by late middle-aged men and women, friends, who are dying one by one, or getting terribly diseased, as if the planet’s ills are corroding them: “Their friends and neighbors are collapsing all around them—in mimicry of the collapsing roads of Vedders Hill.”
It’s Andrew’s (half-serious) opinion that, in the twenty-first century, damnation is a matter not of Hell but of inadequate medical insurance.
“We are spiders dangled by fate over the fires of Hell, and the slightest slip will plunge us into an eternity of misery—kept alive by machines, for which we may have to pay ‘out of pocket.’ ”
Andrew’s listeners laugh, uneasily. He may be joking—or half joking—but this is the nightmare that everyone in America dreads.
The couple, who have their own issues–he’s distant, a bit ridiculing of her “catastrophizing”–decide to have a party for their remaining friends, and Luce decides to revive the strong quartet she used to have, and perform Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, the 14th, “Death and the Maiden.” The pages on the performance of the quartet are among those rare performances in themselves of a writer conveying the art of music in words, so much better than Burgess did in his awful Mozart book, all wrapped up in Luce’s contradictory emotions and anguish: “The terror of beauty, Luce thinks. Like the terror of mortality, it is what links us.”
Fifteen-year-old Connie: “she knew she was pretty and that was everything.” But her mother’s a nag, cruelly easy to fool, and her sister June her mother’s “plain and chunky” pet with whom she’s constantly unfavorably compared. Her mother is jealous of her prettiness. She has friends, she has music: “the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon.” A Sunday morning the family leaves for an aunt’s barbecue. Connie declines to go. (She’s a younger Adela Moore in the Henry James story: “yet now that he was at a distance she felt a singular sense of freedom: a return of that condition of early childhood when, through some domestic catastrophe, she had for an infinite morning been left to her own devices.”)
She dreamily, sentimentally thinks of the boy she spent the evening with. He House seems to shrink in proportion to her daydream, the eroticism of her music. Two boys drive up, one of them the shaggy-haired boy who’d made promising eyes at her the night before that she tried to ignore. Arnold Friend, the kind that paints the name in big letters on the side of his car, his nose “sniffing as if she were a treat he was going to gobble up and it was all a joke.” But it isn’t: he sounds as informed about Connie as a stalker, creepily, down to family details. No red flags for Connie? This line doesn’t seem to fit “His smile assured her that everything was fine.”
Friend’s friend Ellie is in the car. Connie wants him to think she knows him. She doesn’t want to seem the dope. But he looks 30. She’s nervous. He lies, claims to be her age. “He grinned so broadly his eyes became slits and she saw how thick the lashes were, thick and black as if painted with a black tarlike material, the tar an echo of the black lettering on the car. Ellie looks creepy, old, “he had a fair, hairless face, cheeks reddened slightly as if the veins grew too close to the surface of his skin, the face of a forty-year-old baby.” Connie attempts to desist, “faintly.” She’s in a trance. He presses. He’s aggressive, resentful. Now she’s fearful, “and she had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even about the music that was so familiar to her was only half real.” But now he’s describing to her how he’ll take her virginity in terms indistinguishable from a rape: “I’ll tell you how it is, I’m always nice at first, the first time. I’ll hold you so tight you won’t think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you’ll know you can’t. And I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give in to me and you’ll love me.” She panics, retreats into her house that doesn’t seem like her house, nor her home, anyway, as he continues his sinister deadpan advances, verbal and literal, a man in complete control of the idea of control, the lust for control, this weird little man: “Evidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller.” He is beginning to seem like Flannery O’connor’s Misfit: “This is how it is, honey: you come out and we’ll drive away, have a nice ride. But if you don’t come out we’re gonna wait till your people come home and then they’re all going to get it.” The seduction by way of threatening murder, guilt-tripping the victim into submitting to a rape. She reaches for the phone: Oates’s description of her fear as she is overcome by Friend is out of Poe:
Something roared in her ear, a tiny roaring, and she was so sick with fear that she could do nothing but listen to it—the telephone was clammy and very heavy and her fingers groped down to the dial but were too weak to touch it. She began to scream into the phone, into the roaring. She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness. A noisy sorrowful wailing rose all about her and she was locked inside it the way she was locked inside this house.
And this, the pedophile’s manifesto: “Be nice to me, be sweet like you can because what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?” (She uses a line here, “she felt her pounding heart. Her hand seemed to enclose it. She thought for the first time in her life that it was nothing that was hers, that belonged to her, but just a pounding, living thing inside this body that wasn’t really hers either.” It reminded me of the image from Malamud: “All day Sam’s heart beat so hard he sometimes fondled it with his hand as though trying to calm a bird that wanted to fly off.”)