Andrew J. Rush has achieved the kind of critical and commercial success most authors only dream about: He has a top agent and publisher in New York, and his twenty-eight mystery novels have sold millions of copies. Only Stephen King, one of the few mystery writers whose fame exceeds his own, is capable of inspiring a twinge of envy in Rush. But Rush is hiding a dark secret. Under the pseudonym “Jack of Spades,” he pens another string of novels—noir thrillers that are violent, lurid, masochistic. These are novels that the upstanding Rush wouldn’t be caught reading, let alone writing. When his daughter comes across a Jack of Spades novel he has carelessly left out, she picks it up and begins to ask questions. Meanwhile, Rush receives a court summons in the mail explaining that a local woman has accused him of plagiarizing her own self-published fiction. Before long, Rush’s reputation, career, and family life all come under threat—and in his mind he begins to hear the taunting voice of the Jack of Spades.
Joyce Carol Oates takes the notion of the unreliable narrator, the hidden wound and grafts it onto a discourse about writing, unconscious plagiarism, the fickle nature of literary fame and the allure of the alter ego. She adds to that a descent into madness, gaps in perception and the coruscating nature of madness. With all of that, she still grafts it onto a taut, implacable plot that seethes with narrative drive. She asks the question of whether the narrator is losing their mind early on but she witholds answering it until it’s too late. You’re a passenger in the front seat and the road ahead is horrific and uncertain.
The narration posits Rushford as a man who is at great pains to present himself as gentle and humble despite his success, happy with his lot in life who is hiding a secret when a legal summons begins to unravel his psyche. Oates maintains a nervous, pounding energy alive with devious justifications, over compensations and eventually confessions. It is not an orgy of violence, Oates understands that the horror comes from paying attention to the crime of impulse, the gentle man turned savage and the justifications afterwards. She writes carefully and deliberately, maintaining a pace that had me reading from when I picked it up until I was turning the last page with feverish focus.
Joyce Carol Oates is brilliant. Her work is red in tooth and claw, she tells compelling stories that pull the rug out from under your feet and as you catch your breath, she keeps telling the story that even pain cannot keep you from listening to.