When John ‘Whitey’ McLaren witnesses an act of police brutality against an Indian man mistaken as black, the former mayor of a nearby town attempts to intercede. Tased to the ground, he suffers a stroke and soon dies — ‘soon’ being a relative term, because “Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” is Joyce Carol Oates at her most loquacious.
Whitey leaves behind his wife Jessalyn and their five grown-up children; white, privileged Americans who are grievously discombobulated by the abrupt disgorgement of their family’s lynchpin. But this is not the simple tale you might presume it at heart: that of a family experiencing the most primal of heartbreak and pain, and their redemptive path away from it. Instead, Oates steeps her cast in the most excruciating and toxic forms of grief, and lets the McLaren’s stew in it for the novel’s entirety, evocatively detailing its metamorphic effect, as their sadness contorts into outright despair and ferocious anger. The siblings transform; grotesquely in most cases, as if Whitey’s death has vanquished any semblance of decency. The children’s handling of their mother’s attempts to move on (and out) from Whitey’s shadow is unsettling; their focus on the estate rather than her happiness is demonstrative of their greed and selfishness, once hidden behind polished veneers, now stripped and laid bare.
“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” is an astonishing piece of storytelling; a domestic masterpiece textured by Oates’ willingness to probe the forbidden places of grief, and extract its intrinsic blackness. It is a work of intense, forensic observation; a microscopic examination of a family undone by a tragic loss against a portrait of modern America.