Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates

Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates.

Sexy is centred on Darren, a 16 year old teenager who looks too sexy for his own good. As required by clichés, CPAs are shy men with glasses and sexy men look like Brad Pitt. So Darren looks like Brad Pitt, it’s Joyce Carol Oates who writes it, not me. (I could start a controversy on the accuracy of both clichés, but that’s not the point here) 

Darren is a member of the swimming team of his high school. He lives in a remote neighbourhood of the small town of North Falls, somewhere on the Connecticut river. His father works for the city as a road employee. He comes from a lower class than his friend Molly or his friends from the swimming team.

Darren experiences the usual disarray of that age and doesn’t know who he is yet. He needs to find his place in the family and stop comparing to his older brother Eddy. He is a soft boy, loving his parents, working seriously in school although his results are average. He is sort of desperate because he thinks he can’t meet other people’s expectations. He would like to swim better, to have better grades. Girls are attracted to him, even proposition him but he’s too scared and too shy to answer. He is also aware that men are attracted to him and that makes him feel ill-at-ease.  

Right from the beginning, we feel a heavy atmosphere, Darren’s head isn’t a comfortable place to be.

One night, after a training session, he realises that his friend Kevin, who was supposed to give him a ride home, has left early. The weather is foul, it’s freezing and it starts snowing. His English teacher, Mr Tracy, offers to drive him home. Darren would rather not be alone with Mr Tracy but he doesn’t want to be impolite and it is so cold and he lives so far that he gives in. Mr Tracy is gay but still in the closet and even if he doesn’t go beyond looks and faltering, Darren understands that his teacher is in love with him. Nothing really happens as Mr Tracy immediately backs off but Darren is truly shaken.

Almost at the same time, Mr Tracy gives a bad grade to one of the swimming team member, Jimmy Kovaks, excluding him from the competition. Jimmy wants revenge and starts false rumours on Mr Tracy’s sexual habits.

An implacable machine is then on its way.  

Darren’s beauty is a handicap for him. He doesn’t have the personality people expect from such a perfect body. And what do they expect? A loud, confident boy chasing after girls. His parents worry for him, they feel he is ill-equipped for this world, too soft. His friends and his brother don’t understand. Darren made me think of Alex in Paranoid Park by Gus van Sant. (I haven’t read the book). They have the same way to cross life alone and the same inability to address the adults. Except that Darren has a conscience. Sexy also reminded me of Boy Heaven by Laura Kasischke

And then, there is the intolerance of the society towards homosexual and gays in particular, but I don’t want to develop this as it would end up revealing too much of the book.  

As far as the style is concerned, I thought this book was a slapdash job. A little polishing wouldn’t have hurt. And then the translation… Sigh… Reading Thomas Hardy in English made me question my decision to read books in their original language, reading Sexy in translation reminded me why I had made the decision in the first place. It was exactly what I needed not to change my mind. First, I was constantly trying to guess what the English was underneath the French, which was a noisy interference in my reading. Second, I was really irritated by the translation – again. Who on earth has ever heard a French child call their mother “mam”??? High-school levels have been transposed into the French school system and the translator chose not to translate cheerleader, despite the usual “pom-pom girl” term available in French (1). It was also followed by an explanation. I really doubt the definition was in the original and honestly, with all the teen movies Hollywood pours down on us, I wonder if somebody still ignores what a cheerleader is or what the names of American high-school years are.  

Despite the written-in-a-rush style and the itching aspects of the translation, I enjoyed reading Sexy. I put it down reluctantly when I had to stop reading and I was impatient to know the ending. It is a fine portrait of a teenage boy who tries to figure out what it is to be a man in a society where being a man is to love sports, hanging out with friends and enjoying girls for their body and certainly not for their conversation. A boy who doesn’t fit into that model is suspected to be gay and that makes of his life a pure hell. It is a book about conformism and the difficulty to be different and also about how our societies overreact as soon as “pedophilia” is pronounced, accusing before checking the facts. In France, we have had the sadly famous Affaire d’Outreau.

It’s worth reading, but don’t expect a perfect literary style. (unless the French translation is that bad)

PS: I was under the impression that the choice of “Darren” as a first name had a meaning. Does it convey a special image?


(1) Yes, that’s one of those French words invented on the basis of English words and which mean nothing in English. We have lots of them.

  1. March 15, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Darren doesn’t mean much to me, but then the meaning is probably American-specific if there is one.

    Slapdash. Eh. I was about to ask if you’d call it a beach read and then I saw you’d given it the category “Beach and Transportation Books”, so I guess so.

    Were you feeling like something a bit lighter or has Oates written other stuff that you’d previously liked?


    • March 15, 2011 at 8:07 pm

      I wanted something lighter, you’re right and I had never tried Oates and seen many of her books on the bookstore shelves. That’s a perfect beach read, though. It’s useful sometimes.
      But I’m getting more and more difficult about the style.


  2. March 15, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I have never been able to get into Oates–although she is extremely popular here (and I mean by the lit crowd). I have enjoyed a couple of short stories, but the novels no.

    If I had to pick possibly the most difficult 19th C British author to translate, Hardy would be my choice.

    I can’t think of any special significance to the name Darren.


    • March 15, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      This was my first Oates, I’m not sure I want to read another one. But in the category “beach and transportation”, it’s OK.

      Thanks, that’s comforting. Reading the short stories was feasable, it demanded a lot of concentration, that’s all. I have a good edition, with a glossary for dialect words and useful explanatory notes (when they’re not about the French words included in Hardy’s text)
      When I read one of his novel — and I will, he’s a wonderful writer — I’ll get it in French. (I don’t remember which one you told me to read first)


      • March 15, 2011 at 8:10 pm

        Her other novels are decidedly NOT Beach and Transportation reads. Solstice is a marvel and Foxfire is fantastic.


      • March 16, 2011 at 2:06 am

        I’d try Mayor of Casterbridge. It’s not my fav but it’s a good place to start.

        When I go back to Hardy, I can feel how much more difficult he is to read. You cannot be a lazy reader with Hardy.


  3. March 15, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Is this not marketed as YA in France? Joyce Carol Oates is too prolific. Every once in a while she writes a really good book but some are just not that great. I like many of her novels but have never tried one of her YA novels. She never struck me as someone who could write for YA or children but you make it sound worthwhile, I wouldn’t mind reading it but still got a few that I will read first. The topic is a difficult one in any case. Maybe it isn’t the translation, maybe she really wrote it too fast. “Darren” doesn’t say anything to me.


    • March 15, 2011 at 8:15 pm

      Yes it was first published in a children edition. But Folio is for adults. Maybe she tried to use simple words and sentences to address to a young public.
      You know we don’t have YA here. It’s coming though, I’ve seen Twilight marketed as Jeune Adulte in a book store.
      Pff. Do we really have to do everything Americans do ?


  4. March 16, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Nah, we don’t, but I think in this case it probably would have made sense. I really think you should explore her other novels. They are very complex and multi-layered. And her short-stories are also really great.
    This is one of her most famous ones.”Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”


    • March 16, 2011 at 10:14 pm

      Thanks for the link, I’ll read it.


    • March 17, 2011 at 10:46 pm

      OK, I’ve read it.
      Great story (like for Sexy, you want to discover the ending) but I’m not caught by her style. I find it “straightforward”. It lacks of images and of creativity and it’s even more obvious as I’m reading Rebecca West now.


  5. March 16, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    My own encounter with Oates was not a happy one, and I’ve had no desire return. You make this one sound significantly better, although I had similar reservations with regard to style.

    Having said that I recently picked up (and put down again!) a book/essay she had written on the subject of boxing. I have no interest in boxing but it was well-written and beginning to engage me despite the subject matter.

    Caroline is not the only person from whom I have heard Oates highly recommended. But I would certainly take advice before picking another.


    • March 16, 2011 at 10:06 pm

      Guy also says she is praised but that he didn’t like the books he tried. So I don’t know.
      I trust Caroline enough to try another one but not very soon, my book pile is huge. (sorry about your rat, btw.)


  1. April 27, 2014 at 6:38 am

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