Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

Bring back Jekyll and Hyde…

😐 😐

jack of spadesAndrew J Rush is a middlingly successful writer of traditional style crime novels. But he has an alter-ego – under the pen name of Jack of Spades he writes grubby and graphic noir shockers. No-one knows about this secret – not even his wife and children. But when an elderly woman accuses him of plagiarism, Rush feels his whole reputation is threatened and, as he finds his life spiralling out of control, Jack comes more to the surface, tempting Rush to do things his respectable side would be horrified by.

One has to wonder why, when Robert Louis Stevenson had already made such a great job of writing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Ms Oates felt that it would be a good idea to re-hash the story rather poorly. I’ve said this before about other books and writers, but if an author sets herself up to invite comparison, she really needs to make sure that her skills are up to the task. This is nothing more than a short piece of pulp fiction – psychologically weak, poor characterisation, unbelievable hole-filled plot and none of the insights on morality and society that give depth to the original. The horror that comes through so well in Jekyll and Hyde is entirely absent from this, partly because Oates seems unable to decide if she is going for horror or humour. While Oates writes reasonably well overall, there are some horrendously clanging awfulnesses in my proof copy which I seriously hoped would be edited out before the final version was published. A sneak peek at the Kindle sample, however, suggests sadly not…

…as the ax-blade crashed and sank into the splintering desk beside my head, missing my head by inches; by which time I’d fallen heavily onto the floor…

(Hmm! One has to assume he’d left his head on the desk when he fell on the floor – detached, one wonders, or just an exceptionally long neck…?)

Andrew J Rush is a man with an outsize ego whose level of success hasn’t reached the heights he would like. On the outside, he’s a happily married man who fits well in to the suburban life that he lives. But on the inside he’s a self-centred egotist with a well developed streak of misogyny, and a history of using other people’s ideas to his own advantage. It’s clear from early on that he enjoys the freedom to express the less pleasant aspects of his personality through his Jack of Spades books. He aspires to be the next Stephen King, only sleazier, and his obsession with King provides much of the humour, along with some barbed observations on the world of crime writing and publishing.

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates

But I’m afraid the humour wears thin pretty quickly, leaving very little else to admire. The Andrew/Jack personality split never feels real and the novella doesn’t achieve the level of darkness I think it’s aiming for. There’s more to writing dark stories, even black comedies, than just tossing in a bit of violence every now and again. Given how he has treated her over many years, Andrew’s wife would undoubtedly have left him – Oates fails totally to provide her with a characterisation that would have made it seem reasonable for her to have stayed with him. And that’s the problem with the whole thing really – nothing rings true. It feels as if the work hasn’t been put in to create enough of a coherent and credible base to carry the reader along when the plot necessarily stretches belief towards the end.

A disappointment, I’m afraid, that leaves me unenthusiastic about trying any of her other books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Amazon US Link


95 thoughts on “Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

  1. I know Lonesome Reader loves Joyce Carol Oates, and I’ve always felt like I should try one book of hers at least… but this is not the one, sounds like!

  2. This sounds like the sort of book I would enjoy shouting at, all the way through. I admit, I am a little tempted, probably not enough to actually buy it, though. I might try to persuade a friend and then borrow it from them 🙂

  3. Smiles happlily and dusts the static TBR pile. Then frowns, remembering the current dire ARC I’ve been struggling with for nearly a week, and the even more dire bookclub read which set me to grinding my teeth to stumps by the awful hackneyed writing on the first 2 pages of the look inside,,,,,,,,,But i do quite like the unintentional humour of your headless narrator on this one. Sounds like the character has escaped from Harry Potter…….Headless Nick?

    • It’s funny how books seem to go in waves. Sometimes every book is brilliant – and then you get a stream of ‘Who thought this was a good idea?’ ones. What’s the book club book? Haha! Yes, the unintentional humour in this one was actually better than the intentional… I was convinced it was an unedited proof – couldn’t believe it when I saw the howlers still seem to be in the finished version. Maybe it was trying to be ironic…

      I am practising nodding my head rhythmically in preparation for Gif Week!

      • Dear nodding friend, the book club book is Pines by Blake Crouch, whom I keep misrembering as Barty Crouch from Harry Potter. It’s apparently a TV series (? cable?) biggie. I’m always remarkably cynical about stuff which almost seems created for the megabucks bidding war which happens because someone immediately spots ‘it’s a film’ ‘it’s a TV series’ You know absolutely for example that Hilary Mantel did not write Wolf Hall with the idea that there would be a TV adaptation in the back of her mind.

        Oh well, at least the next two months will be interesting, as there was an overwhelming victory for non-fiction. I must say the club does quite well in that I think the two moderators like quite different things, so we get a choice which seems to get weighted to meet the needs of different groups of us. 2 months of books which have been tooth stump fare for me, followed by 2 months which I expect to enjoy. Mind you, there are always interesting discussions on the books which some of us loathe! I think some of it is an age thing, the more vintage single malt whisky, aged in fine oak cask members like different things from the Beaujolais Nouveaux amongst us!

        • Hmm… haven’t heard of Pines or Blake Crouch – but then perhaps that’s down to my own vintage! I fear that’s the problem with bookclubs and why, despite finding the idea appealing from time to time, I never join them. Can’t face the idea of reading bad books that someone else has chosen – I’m good enough at choosing bad books without help! I also can’t really be bothered discussing most books – there’s only the occasional one, good or bad, that gets me worked up enough. Mostly, by the time the review has been written (and increasingly, even before it is!) I’m more than ready to move on to something else. A bookie lightweight, that’s me!

          • You? a bookie lightweight? Take your tongue out of your cheek Mrs!

            I do enjoy the discussions, because, in the bad ones, they often veer very quickly off the book itself and onto much more interesting matters. Like the truly awful autobio written by the little rich girl who smuggled drugs and ooh, got sent to jail, and wrote this book which became a smash hit TV series. I do get a bit on my high horse (surprise????) and could not spend money on this to line little misses pockets (a number of us felt the same way) So I hadn’t got beyond the first few pages of look inside (and thought the writing was pants, crass, rats, toast, tedious), so I couldn’t even stomach a library borrow, so just really got involved in the discussions about ethics, rather than the book. I do think there’s a lot of more ‘youth orientated’ TV book-to-TV’ And a lot of it I think is on cable not primetime. And there is where the age differentials in our group show their faultlines!

            PS I don’t think you’ve missed anything by never having heard of the Crouching Pine…its, kind of, like, awesome………not

            • Haha! In terms of discussion, I meant! I shall be expecting the Heavyweight Champion title if I ever manage to finish Stalin…

              I think I’d probably enjoy a book club more if it was either people with similar tastes or people from a similar age-range. So much of what the yoof of today is reading just doesn’t interest me – all these fantasy trilogies and loads of celeb stuff. Though of course lots of yoofs are reading good stuff too, and I love hearing what they think of the classics. I keep toying with joining the one in the local library, but I’d like to know what sort of books they read first – I might have to go along and furtively eavesdrop on one of their meetings sometime…

          • You are of course (from one of your later comments, doesn’t have a ‘reply’ button) right about the popular trend in yoof of today reading fantasy trilogy and sleb**. Its exactly those kind of titles which are being offered on the club, Though I stress, to be perfectly fair, as one of the moderators chooses titles to appeal there, and the other is an eclectic reader with a predilection for lit fic, who is not a yoof, we do get both possibilities offered. I think sometimes tactical voting happens, (!) when maybe, in a list which has 2 out of 3 choices favouring one of the ‘camps’ people try to second guess what everyone might vote for, and vote to stop the most impossible one winning.

            I think (here is a surprise!) I might be the most stroppy member. I really DO try to read the stuff which I find abysmal, rather than going ‘well I’m for sure not going to read THAT’ but I do give up very quickly when offences against decent writing manifest themselves. My fellow ‘lit-ficers’ seem to be made of sterner stuff and plough on, kindly, reading something which they don’t really like, in order to be able to participate in discussions about the book. Whereas I’m afraid I say ‘I can’t really contribute as I found it very badly written……..here is an example’ and I gave up after struggling crossly to get beyond page 1 on the ‘look inside.

            I’m probably the member who therefore fits in to the ‘grumpy old woman reader’ cliche – the one who savagely hits the book with her walking stick, shouting ‘you need to learn better writing manners young scribbling person…………..in my days writers spent many hours working down the literary mines, sweating and suffering at their craft, making sure they only brought good lumps of literary coal to the surface, not this rubbishy DUST!’

            **As you say, we are talking about ‘general trend’ here, not all yoofy readers, by any means

            • It’s a pity the blogs don’t lead to easier discussion – the comment/reply mechanism tend to mean lots of separate conversations rather than inclusive discussion. On the whole I like that better, to be honest, but I’d like the option to be able to set up the occasional discussion post where spoilers were allowed. In reality though, I’d probably never use it since I can never be bothered to join in readalongs (except the fantasy ones I’ve been doing with the Professor, which are fun). And I don’t know how you find the time anyway! Between reading and blogging I seem to have a full-time job already!

      • PS – you might need to flicker and twitch more than just your head! Grins in anticipation!!!!! (I’ve just had a delighted look again at my first gif. I love it, I love it. And as for number 2 gif………..

    • See, that is why I keep books in my Kindle. Out of sight, out of mind. I have picked up a few books that I read years ago and have hidden the Kindle out of sight while I skip down memory with James Thurber. It’s just a question of who is in charge.

  4. I can always count on you, FF, to tell it like it is — thank you for a fine review! I haven’t read this one, but it doesn’t sound as if I’ve missed much, ha!

  5. So let me guess, FictionFan…you’re not really recommending this one, right? I may be wrong about that, but thought I’d check… I agree with you about the importance of really making sure one’s got a compelling story before anything else. To me, there’s no harm in borrowing from a scenario or premise that has really made an impact. But then, I think, the author has to make it her or his own and create a new story that works, instead of making the story a poor copy of what’s been done. I’m thinking, for instance, of Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down and Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hiar, both of which borrow (don’t know how intentionally) the Jekyll/Hyde concept of ‘ordinary person who becomes consumed by his dark side.’ Both stories are unique, and based on what you’ve shared, both much better.

    • Ah, you picked up on my subtle hints then? 😉

      Yes, I’m quite happy to read variations on a theme, but only when they’re done well and, as you say, bring something new to the table. And the writing has to be a good enough standard to stand the comparisons. I haven’t read either of the ones you mention, but I do think looking at a character’s dark side can be compelling, if it’s done convincingly. But this one just made no psychological sense…

  6. One of the very rare one star reviews I’ve given was for Daddy Love by this author which suffered from similar issues to those you’ve highlighted. The annoying thing is I know I loved one of her novels but I have no idea which one! Thanks for another brilliant review.

  7. Years ago, I read a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates called “The Wheel of Love.” I thought that they were very good, and I was eager to read more of her work. But later short stories did not seem as good, I thought. Maybe I read one of her novels, though I do not recall which one. And then Oates seemed to start to see herself as a kind of pop commentor on the age. Maybe this is unfair, because I don’t really know much about her life. But I do remember her “Dark Water,” where she imagined the viewpoint of Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman who drowned in Chappaquiddick. Oates doesn’t know what happened, but she wanted to jump in, and perhaps she wanted to get headlines, in a novelistic sense.

    It seems that her promise as one of America’s potentially best writers has not been fulfilled, not judging from her last thirty or so years of work. However, I do still recommend “The Wheel of Love.”

    • I felt the way she used Stephen King in this novel was a bit strange – she came very close to accusing him of being a plagiarist. All very tongue-in-cheek, but still… but I decided that perhaps they’re good friends and so he would find it amusing. To be honest, this felt like something she had just churned out without much work going into it – a pot-boiler. I guess she’s relying on her existing fan base to support it, but it’s strange that her publishers should be putting it out for review. As a result, it’s getting quite a lot of negative reviews from people who would probably never have read it otherwise.

      Her name is one I’ve been aware of for a long time without really knowing what sort of stuff she did. I might try The Wheel of Love at some point, but I’ll need to recover from this one first… 😉

  8. Yet ANOTHER post from me (sorry) – actually your post for a book you didn’t enjoy (like my bookclub discussions on books many of us hated) is generating very interesting discussions. So, dear heart, I suggest you keep reading stuff you can’t recommend – and maybe some of us will take up William’ suggestion for The Wheel of Love. It’s always a help to know WHICH writing of a well respected author would be the best introduction and which to avoid!

    • Haha! I only really blog in order to provoke chit-chat! I’ve often thought I might not bother with reviews and just have a ‘discussion topic for the day’ – which eye do you wink with most often, what’s your favourite breakfast cereal – that kind of thing *gets a sudden flashback to Lark*

      But be wary of William’s posts – he has added about a zillion books to my TBR in the last couple of weeks. Dangerous… 😉

      • But they are really good books! 🙂 I will take it as a compliment of course. But I know that you read so many books, so I only recommend those to you that I think are exceptionally worthwhile. And there are not that many of those! So I am of course very appreciative of those recommendations which you make, as well.

        • I’m always happy to get recommendations from a like-minded reader – it’s the best way of finding authors, especially from across the pond. Lady Fancifull and I regularly bemoan the insularity of our schools and universities in their almost exclusive concentration on English authors – understandable to a degree, but it does mean that we have to work a bit harder to expand our horizons…

          • It is interesting that British schools apparently greatly favor Brtish authors, but American schools do not seem to have a comparable insularity. When I majored in English in college, there were many courses such as “18th Century British Literature,” ” 19th and 20th Century British Novels,” “Restoration Drama.” Of course Britain has a longer history altogether, so if they just taught courses in American literature, there probably wouldn’t be enough to fill a major curriculum. But there was never an “American-centric” focus in a literature major. I always assumed that the best British schools were more challenging than the best American schools, but it may be that I was given a greater depth of study of British literature than you were of American literature. Once leaving school, however, I have found it more difficult to learn about the best of the British writers.

            On the other hand, I hardly have known anyone here outside of a literature major, who knows anything about classic British literature outside of Dickens and Austen, which is disappointing.

            • I suspect (hope) it might be different these days, but when I was studying the Brits still hadn’t got over the Empire, and were completely convinced we had the only literature worth reading – except perhaps for the occasional Russian and maybe a Frenchman or two – but only if they’d been dead for at least a century. But my pet grievance (and I do bore on about this quite regularly, I fear!) is that, not only did we ignore American literature, but in fact we were educated almost entirely on English writers, as opposed to British ones. As a Scot being educated in Scotland, it horrifies me to look back and see how Scottish, Irish and Welsh authors were also omitted almost entirely from the curriculum. Hence my greater knowledge of Dickens and Shakespeare than Scott and Burns. It wasn’t something I was conscious of at the time, since it had been happening for (literally) centuries and was just accepted as the norm, but I’ve become increasingly angered by it over the years since. My knowledge of English history is also greater than of Scottish – what little I know of Scottish history is almost entirely self-taught. It’s this kind of cultural suppression that has lead so many people to want independence. But, as I say, hopefully it’s different now…

              It’s one of the reasons I have an interest in ‘colonial’ literature generally – India in particular seems to suffer from a similar post-Empire disconnect from their own culture which some of their writers are exploring interestingly now. I find a lot of it resonates strongly with my own experiences – The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer is an exceptional novel about, amongst other things, the Indian elite having been culturally subsumed by the Brits.

      • (old Viners never die, their consciousness floats in the ether, waiting to land on a passing, innocent, unsuspecting blogger)

        Okay, I shall anxiously eye my bank balance, and the tottering TBH when I spot comments from William……….Mind you, by putting up the minimum order for free delivery, Amazon has hugely hugely helped both of these. No more spur of the moment clicks. I resist Prime (till the fourth year of being offered a free trial comes round again when there is something I need quickly!) as I resent paying for the bolt ons I have no desire for. Have they shot themselves in the foot? Yes if there are many more like me………..it’s rather thrilling to see how few orders I placed in the last month

        • Sadly, they probably have just as many people like me. I fully intended to opt out of Prime when it came up for renewal in February, but I didn’t get around to it, and so I’m still a member. However, Vine gave me a fabby little Blu-ray player with internet access recently, and I can now view all the films and stuff from Prime on the TV without having to faff about connecting things, so I might make more use of it this year… maybe. I wish they had better films on it though – there’s only ever a handful that I’m interested in.

          I haven’t ordered anything by post from Amazon for ages though, apart from occasional cat food. All Kindle and MP3.

          • So glad you got a Blu-Ray Smart. I got one too, earlier in the year. I’ll only submit to Prime though if/when something comes up which I no longer seem able to wait for/ or source from a local shop (which might be quite soon as Az seems to be the only option for various hardware things, given that it was probably Amazon which seems to have closed down most of the hardware stores!

            I did send them an email telling them I wouldn’t get Prime unless they uncoupled the bits, and was now spending elsewhere for things I might previously have bought on Az. I had an incomprehensible email back ‘Did i solve your problem? Click yes/no I couldn’t work out what she was trying to convey. It seemed to be mainly a cut and paste of Amazon T + C’s for Prime, plus a curious request that if I bought what I wanted, even if it was under the £20, clicked First Class/next day and send an email to her she would make sure I didn’t pay for delivery. Maybe she was a magic wand waving Fairy Godmother, but her email made no sense at all so I binned it

            • I spent an hour yesterday ‘online chatting’ with Churchill about my car insurance renewal. I kept asking the same question and they kept giving me the same non-reply reply. In the end, I phoned them… these e-mail and web responses are dreadful. I’m sure they just look for key words and send a standard response whatever it is your actually asking.

            • Well, maybe this is one reason we ‘do blogs’ – comments tend to be intelligent, keep (more or less) to the subject of the comment or post they are in response to, or, if they go off on tangents are at least interesting tangents rather than standard response tangents!

              BTW – I have been looking at your comment numbers on recent posts, and I do believe you are entering ‘literary and all points north’ salon territory Great stuff. Though it does mean you will need to keep the tea urn primed, and get regular deliveries from the cake shop to keep your busily chatting guests fed and watered

            • Yes, most of the time!

              Haha! Salon perhaps – literary not so much! I love having so many chatty visitors and it always amuses me how I seem to have attracted a non-bookie contingent – at least half my regular commenters don’t have much interest in the books I review, and my non-book posts are always waaaay more popular! Unfortunately my limited creativity only strikes once every couple of months to do something a bit different. But I’m lucky that my non-book blog buddies still come around even when I’m reviewing something they’re not remotely interested in… makes for fun chit-chat!

              But it’s a bring your own cake blog – get your hands off mine!

            • Can I ask – did they just give you these Fire Smart things which I think are £25 or so? And is Vine now a sort of book club/discussion forum where you pick the genres you enjoy? What irritates me – and why we have NetFlix instead – is paying yearly as opposed to monthly. Of course, you don’t get the first class delivery of books…! I too have REALLY cut down on just randomly buying books – a tenner seems irritatingly more, when you in actuality only want one paperback at £3.47. And so true about the hardware stuff – we had to get a toilet seat hinge thingy and of course I ended up buying it on – Amazon. It was cheaper than all the plumber wholesale places I automatically looked at first. I think they jumped the gun by putting on the charge for under £10 – perhaps assuming they had more control than they did? It is irritating thinking about the Scottish government giving them half a billion quid to build a distribution centre, which they will never recoup in taxes, while the workers are treated appallingly…the thing is, we’re all too addicted now to stop it – or most of us are. And for nearly everyone you do have to shop where it’s cheapest. Sorry for the rant, Lady F – just interested in all these Vine things etc. xx

            • We get offered different things through Vine so it’s unlikely LF and I have the same Blu-ray players from them. No Vine isn’t primarily a discussion forum , although there are plenty of fora on Amazon for discussing books and/or all things Amazon related. You’ll find many people there ranting too about how they hate Amazon but still use it – I guess the decision and remedy is in our own hands. To be honest, I steer clear of the Amazon discussions on the whole – I’ve participated in too many of them over the last few years.

    • I think it was titled, “The Wheel of Love and Other Stories.” I hope that this collection is still extant, and that the stories did not simply show up in a different set of collections, as sometimes happens. I can only vouch for those!

  9. I actually got this from NG, thought it sounded intriguing (well-respected author meets pulpy plot!) but this is the second review I’ve read of it – and they’ve both been awful. I keep her name in the “American, highly esteemed” box in my book brain but it seems there’s a bit who disagree – maybe it just doesn’t cross the Atlantic? (Btw, that quote – it sounded like the desk was already splintering before the ax hit it. Or axe, as we say. But that’s not as bad as math as opposed to maths!)

    • Yes, the reviews on Amazon have been pretty poor on the whole, especially for someone who I assumed would have quite a big fan base. And that’s the American reviews, so I don’t think they’re finding it any better than us. Oh, well!

  10. I’m always disappointed when a retelling is poor; it seems like if you borrowed your plot then your style should really shine, you know? I have mixed feelings about Joyce Carol Oates, too, so I’d be best avoiding this one. Thanks for the review!

    • Haha! I do hope your head didn’t become detached! It’s like a sentence that would be used in a ‘How not to write’ seminar. I tried to convince myself she was being ironic, but I couldn’t…

  11. I read We Were the Mulvaneys by this author years ago and didn’t enjoy it enough to read any more of her stories, mostly because it left me feeling so unhappy. The story was tragic and depressing and if I remember rightly, slow to get to the point. I won’t be reading Jack of Spades, but enjoyed your review, as always.

    • This one had a really tragic ending too – quite out of place with the tone of the rest of the story I thought – and that put me off just as much as the writing. I really felt she couldn’t decide whether she was going for comedy or darkness. I don’t think she’s destined to become one of my favourite authors somehow.

  12. Stellar review! I laughed about the head part. Imagine writing that! Well, it was a bad story concept to begin with–like Kidnapped, for instance–and, so, this is…about 10 times worse! I think that logically follows, actually.

    I won’t say anything about her last name/hair connection.

    • *smiles bigly* I suspect the man might have been a giraffe. Oh, don’t put me off Kidnapped! I’m committed to reading it now – and let’s be honest it’ll be a relief to read a book where there are no drug-addled visionaries. Or sand-trouts. I love Professorial logic, you know, you know – it’s so much more fun than the normal kind!

      *laughs loads* Oh, you do make me laugh C-W-W! Soooo wicked! But in this case with valid reason…

      • I am confident that you will like “Kidnapped.” It is a rousing story, and there is romance, too! (Though it doesn’t fully flower until “David Balfour.” My father read these both two books to me when I was about eight or nine years old. I remember listening to “David Balfour,” and thinking, “Enough of this romance! I want sea action and swordfights!”). And there is a well described nobility of purpose, and daring, in the characters of the Scottish “rebels.”

      • But Kidnapped is hardly understandable. The uncle and the blunderbuss is the only good part–for as long as it lasts. And you may want to strangle Allen…

        She should stop getting it curled up like that!

        • Yes, but I should theoretically have a better chance of understanding it. (I mean by being Scottish, NOT by being old… *glowers menacingly*) I think I’ve said I did try it before and didn’t get far but I can’t remember why. It was one of my mother’s favourite books so I’ll feel guilty if I hate it…

          It might be the result of an unfortunate electric shock…

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