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Babysitter

A novel

Author Joyce Carol Oates On Tour
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From one of America’s most renowned storytellers comes a novel about love and deceit, and lust and redemption, against a backdrop of shocking murders in the affluent suburbs of Detroit.

In the waning days of the turbulent 1970s, in the wake of unsolved child-killings that have shocked Detroit, the lives of several residents are drawn together with tragic consequences.

There is Hannah, wife of a prominent local businessman, who has begun an affair with a darkly charismatic stranger whose identity remains elusive; Mikey, a canny street hustler who finds himself on a chilling mission to rectify injustice; and the serial killer known as Babysitter, an enigmatic and terrifying figure at the periphery of elite Detroit. As Babysitter continues his rampage of abductions and killings, these individuals intersect with one another in startling and unexpected ways.

Suspenseful, brilliantly orchestrated, and engrossing, Babysitter is a starkly narrated exploration of the riskiness of pursuing alternate lives, calling into question how far we are willing to go to protect those whom we cherish most. In its scathing indictment of corrupt politics, unexamined racism, and the enabling of sexual predation in America, Babysitter is a thrilling work of contemporary fiction.

“[Oates] writes beautifully. Hannah’s unreliable, elliptical narrative is seductive and compelling, like following someone into a fever dream. . . . Oates masterfully manipulates the narrative timeline, without losing the reader in the process. She is in no hurry to trigger the action, dropping tiny morsels of foreshadowing to keep us on our toes. . . . Babysitter is a ghost story without the ghosts, but with tension thick enough to inspire several heart attacks. Read with care.” —Oyinkan Braithwaite, The New York Times Book Review

“Violent and vile, timely and terrifying. . . . [Babysitter’s] pages are lit up by Oates’s searing rage about patriarchy’s toxic stain, the church’s enabling of and eager participation in the sexual predation of children, racism’s pernicious taint. . . . Oates’s ability to create a sickening sense of horror is as keen as ever. . . . Oates’s righteous anger, her ability to invest her story with mythological resonance, and her talent at creating eerie scenes all make Babysitter a worthwhile read.” —Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe

“[Babysitter] is a wild and panoramic piece of work, the serial killer’s activities a mere backdrop to a pinpoint vision of a society with rottenness at its core. . . . To be able to write with such tearing astuteness about such fiercely contemporary issues would be a feat for any author of any age. . . . As ever, Oates’s prose—almost insolently alive—would seem to break all the rules. The result is nothing less than magical. . . . Definitely one of Oates’s finest achievements to date, Babysitter is an unforgettable portrait.” —Julie Myerson, The Guardian

Babysitter is poetry, yes, but hung on a sturdy framework that supports it. Oates gives us a cast of jagged, interesting characters. . . . A smashing success.” —Meredith Mara, Oprah Daily

“Unsettling, mysterious, deft, sinister, eerily plausible.” —Margaret Atwood, author of The Testaments, via Twitter

“[Oates’s] noirish new novel is particularly dark—and gripping.” —Christina Ianzito, AARP Magazine

“Oates contorts language in her descriptions of characters, creating unease as you second-guess who these people truly are, and who to trust. . . . Despite the horror of the story, Oates’ skill with narrative and her mastery of prose create a compelling study in the most ugly aspects of human desire.” —Kimberly Long, Financial Times

“Captivating . . . I could not put this book down!” —Zibby Owens, Good Morning America

“[Oates] proves once again her unerring grasp on America’s worst fears and desires in Babysitter, an extraordinary slice of suburban noir that centers on a white, wealthy, outlying enclave of Detroit terrorized by a child murderer in the 1970s. . . . As [Oates] stares unflinchingly down the barrel of America’s race and gender wars, her absolute moral clarity shines through.” — Claire Allfree, Daily Mail

“Oates’s unflinching compulsion to go there taps into something powerful and disturbing. I can see a book club discussion of this coming to blows. And possibly some hurled rosé.” —Lisa Henricksson, Air Mail

“I can’t remember the last time I read a book with the excitement and tension of Babysitter. . . . [Oates] is a master at pretty much everything, including domestic suspense. . . . Everything crackles: the characters, the plot, she even pumps some new life into the serial killer trope.” —Lisa Levy, CrimeReads

“Carefully constructed sentences, pitch-perfect dialogue, and a central character who is simultaneously sympathetic and repellent. An outstanding novel from a true modern master who jumps across genres with unrivaled dexterity.” —Booklist, starred

“A searing work of slow-burning domestic noir. . . . Oates paints an unflinching portrait of 1970s upper-middle-class America, touching on issues of racism, classism, and institutional abuse while exploring society’s tendency to value women solely in relation to the role they fill—be it wife, mother, or sexual object.” —Kirkus Reviews
Do Not Disturb

On the sixty-­first floor of the hotel tower he awaits her.

No name for him that is likely to be a true name. Very little about him that is likely to be true. Enough for her to know—­he, him.

She is the sole passenger in the elevator, which is a sleek glass cubicle rising rapidly and silently into the atrium as into the void.

Below, the crowded hotel lobby sinks away. Beside her, open floors and railings fly downward.
A sleek new way of elevating, so different from the larger, slower-­moving, cumbersome elevators of her childhood.

In those elevators, often there were uniformed operators who wore gloves. In elevators like these, you are your own operator.

Lingering in the elevator a faint aroma, is it cigar smoke?

It is December 1977. Smoking in the public areas of private hotels has not yet been banned.

She feels a thrill of vertigo, nausea. Cigar smoke as faint as memory. She shuts her eyes to steady herself.

Her sleek Italian leather handbag, she carries not slung from her right wrist as usual but carried snug beneath her right arm, and steadied and supported by her left hand, for it is perceptibly heavier than usual.

Still, the handbag is so positioned that its gleaming brass label shines outward—­Prada.

By instinct, unconscious, vanity’s gesture even on this day—­Prada.

Is this the final day of her life, or is this the final day of a life?

Of course she has memorized the number: 6183.

Could be a tattoo at her wrist. His claim on her.

Claim. Doom. She is not a poet, she is not a person adroit or comfortable with words, yet these words seem to her soothing like smooth cool stones laid over the shuttered eyes of the dead to bring them peace.

His room. In fact it’s a suite, two spacious rooms overlooking the Detroit River where he stays when he visits Detroit.

Though it is possible that he has different rooms for different visitors. She would not know this, he has never confided in her.

At the sixty-­first floor the cubicle stops with a hiss and a mild jolt. The glass door slides open, she has no choice but to step out. Something has been decided, she has no choice.

Gripping the handbag beneath her arm. Has she no choice?

Wondering is he awaiting her, near the elevator? Eager for her arrival?

She doesn’t see anyone. In neither direction, any human figure.

You can still turn back.

If now, no one will know.

Facing the row of elevators, a glass wall overlooking the riverfront, the river, a fierce white sun. A foreshortened view of Woodward Avenue far below, soundless traffic.

Why isn’t clear. Why she has come here, risking so much.

Never ask why. The challenge is the execution—­how.

Making her way along a windowless corridor following the room numbers in their ascent: 6133, 6149, 6160 . . . So slowly do the numbers rise, she feels a thrill of relief, she will never arrive at 6183.

Underfoot a thick plush carpet, as rosy as the interior of a lung. The far end of the corridor has dissolved. Closed doors to the horizon diminishing in size as they approach infinity.
No reason for her to approach 6183 simply because the person awaiting her inside the room has summoned her, if she wishes she can turn back.

. . . as if you’ve never been here.
Never left home.
Who would know? No one.

Yet, she doesn’t turn back. Feels herself drawn forward inexorably.

If you inhabit a riddle the only way to solve the riddle is to push forward to the end.

As the sleek glass cubicle ascended swiftly and unhesitatingly to the sixty-­first floor, so she makes her way to the suite that is his.

A faint odor of cigar smoke in her hair, in her nostrils that pinch with nausea so remote as to be merely residual, memory.

What is she wearing? A costume she has chosen with care, white linen is always discreet, a silk shirt, red silk Dior scarf gaily at her throat.

Elegantly impractical high heels, Saint Laurent kidskin sinking into the carpet. If she must suddenly turn and run, run for her life, the tight-­fitting shoes and the carpet will impede her.

One of those dreams in which she is a child again. She runs, runs. Her feet sink into something like sand, soft-­seeming but not soft.

Never making any progress. Each time she has run.

Each time, he looms behind her. Daddy’s strong hands threaten to seize her, lift her by her ribs . . .

A man’s claim, a doom.

The room numbers accelerate. It is a fact of life to which we never quite adjust ourselves, how out there moves at its allotted speed, no matter our wishes in here.

Approaching 6183 she begins to shiver. It is always the same, she has been here before, that vibrating sensation of a vehicle that is being driven too fast, dangerously fast, in blinding rain, through deep puddles lifting like waves rushing over the windshields.

The nape of her neck rests against a very cold stainless steel table, there is a drain just beneath. Her eyes stare open, unseeing. Only when your eyes are unseeing do you see all.

Yet, she presses on. In the Saint Laurent heels it is still December 1977, she has not yet entered the room for the final time. She is determined that she will come to the end of the riddle.

The brass plaque on the doorframe is 6183, each time it has been 6183.

And the sign hanging from the doorknob, scripted silver letters on lacquered black—­the identical warning sign:

privacy please!
do not disturb

I Am

I am a beautiful woman, I have a right to be loved.
I am a desirable woman, I have a right to desire.
When We Died
When we died, our (beautiful) (naked) bodies became inert matter.
When we died, our final, strangled screams were trapped in our throats.
(It would be said that, if you lay beside us in death and if you put your ear to our throats, and if you were worthy, you could hear a faint echo of this final scream.)
When we died, our torment ended. For mercy awaits us all.
When we died, none of you who had begat us were anywhere near.
When we died, we died alone, in terror. Because you were nowhere near.
When we died, ask yourself why did you have children if you don’t love us.
Ask why.
But when we died, our bodies were prepared lovingly for death as none of you would have prepared us.
When we died, our bodies were carefully bathed, the smallest bits of dirt removed from every crevice of our bodies and from beneath our (broken) fingernails, and the fingernails cut with cuticle scissors, rounded and even; as our hair was washed with a gentle shampoo, combed and neatly parted in such a way to suggest that whoever had so tenderly groomed us postmortem had not known us “in life.”
When our bodies were cleansed and as pure as our souls, we were lovingly “memorialized”: photographed.
Where the human eye would betray us and soon forget us, the Eye of the Camera would render us immortal.
© Emily Soto / Trunk Archive
JOYCE CAROL OATES is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Life Achievement Award, the National Book Award, the Jerusalem Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Prix Femina, and the Cino Del Duca World Prize. She has been nominated several times for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national best sellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and the New York Times best seller The Falls. She is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Distinguished Professor of the Humanities Emerita at Princeton University and has been a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. View titles by Joyce Carol Oates

About

From one of America’s most renowned storytellers comes a novel about love and deceit, and lust and redemption, against a backdrop of shocking murders in the affluent suburbs of Detroit.

In the waning days of the turbulent 1970s, in the wake of unsolved child-killings that have shocked Detroit, the lives of several residents are drawn together with tragic consequences.

There is Hannah, wife of a prominent local businessman, who has begun an affair with a darkly charismatic stranger whose identity remains elusive; Mikey, a canny street hustler who finds himself on a chilling mission to rectify injustice; and the serial killer known as Babysitter, an enigmatic and terrifying figure at the periphery of elite Detroit. As Babysitter continues his rampage of abductions and killings, these individuals intersect with one another in startling and unexpected ways.

Suspenseful, brilliantly orchestrated, and engrossing, Babysitter is a starkly narrated exploration of the riskiness of pursuing alternate lives, calling into question how far we are willing to go to protect those whom we cherish most. In its scathing indictment of corrupt politics, unexamined racism, and the enabling of sexual predation in America, Babysitter is a thrilling work of contemporary fiction.

“[Oates] writes beautifully. Hannah’s unreliable, elliptical narrative is seductive and compelling, like following someone into a fever dream. . . . Oates masterfully manipulates the narrative timeline, without losing the reader in the process. She is in no hurry to trigger the action, dropping tiny morsels of foreshadowing to keep us on our toes. . . . Babysitter is a ghost story without the ghosts, but with tension thick enough to inspire several heart attacks. Read with care.” —Oyinkan Braithwaite, The New York Times Book Review

“Violent and vile, timely and terrifying. . . . [Babysitter’s] pages are lit up by Oates’s searing rage about patriarchy’s toxic stain, the church’s enabling of and eager participation in the sexual predation of children, racism’s pernicious taint. . . . Oates’s ability to create a sickening sense of horror is as keen as ever. . . . Oates’s righteous anger, her ability to invest her story with mythological resonance, and her talent at creating eerie scenes all make Babysitter a worthwhile read.” —Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe

“[Babysitter] is a wild and panoramic piece of work, the serial killer’s activities a mere backdrop to a pinpoint vision of a society with rottenness at its core. . . . To be able to write with such tearing astuteness about such fiercely contemporary issues would be a feat for any author of any age. . . . As ever, Oates’s prose—almost insolently alive—would seem to break all the rules. The result is nothing less than magical. . . . Definitely one of Oates’s finest achievements to date, Babysitter is an unforgettable portrait.” —Julie Myerson, The Guardian

Babysitter is poetry, yes, but hung on a sturdy framework that supports it. Oates gives us a cast of jagged, interesting characters. . . . A smashing success.” —Meredith Mara, Oprah Daily

“Unsettling, mysterious, deft, sinister, eerily plausible.” —Margaret Atwood, author of The Testaments, via Twitter

“[Oates’s] noirish new novel is particularly dark—and gripping.” —Christina Ianzito, AARP Magazine

“Oates contorts language in her descriptions of characters, creating unease as you second-guess who these people truly are, and who to trust. . . . Despite the horror of the story, Oates’ skill with narrative and her mastery of prose create a compelling study in the most ugly aspects of human desire.” —Kimberly Long, Financial Times

“Captivating . . . I could not put this book down!” —Zibby Owens, Good Morning America

“[Oates] proves once again her unerring grasp on America’s worst fears and desires in Babysitter, an extraordinary slice of suburban noir that centers on a white, wealthy, outlying enclave of Detroit terrorized by a child murderer in the 1970s. . . . As [Oates] stares unflinchingly down the barrel of America’s race and gender wars, her absolute moral clarity shines through.” — Claire Allfree, Daily Mail

“Oates’s unflinching compulsion to go there taps into something powerful and disturbing. I can see a book club discussion of this coming to blows. And possibly some hurled rosé.” —Lisa Henricksson, Air Mail

“I can’t remember the last time I read a book with the excitement and tension of Babysitter. . . . [Oates] is a master at pretty much everything, including domestic suspense. . . . Everything crackles: the characters, the plot, she even pumps some new life into the serial killer trope.” —Lisa Levy, CrimeReads

“Carefully constructed sentences, pitch-perfect dialogue, and a central character who is simultaneously sympathetic and repellent. An outstanding novel from a true modern master who jumps across genres with unrivaled dexterity.” —Booklist, starred

“A searing work of slow-burning domestic noir. . . . Oates paints an unflinching portrait of 1970s upper-middle-class America, touching on issues of racism, classism, and institutional abuse while exploring society’s tendency to value women solely in relation to the role they fill—be it wife, mother, or sexual object.” —Kirkus Reviews

Excerpt

Do Not Disturb

On the sixty-­first floor of the hotel tower he awaits her.

No name for him that is likely to be a true name. Very little about him that is likely to be true. Enough for her to know—­he, him.

She is the sole passenger in the elevator, which is a sleek glass cubicle rising rapidly and silently into the atrium as into the void.

Below, the crowded hotel lobby sinks away. Beside her, open floors and railings fly downward.
A sleek new way of elevating, so different from the larger, slower-­moving, cumbersome elevators of her childhood.

In those elevators, often there were uniformed operators who wore gloves. In elevators like these, you are your own operator.

Lingering in the elevator a faint aroma, is it cigar smoke?

It is December 1977. Smoking in the public areas of private hotels has not yet been banned.

She feels a thrill of vertigo, nausea. Cigar smoke as faint as memory. She shuts her eyes to steady herself.

Her sleek Italian leather handbag, she carries not slung from her right wrist as usual but carried snug beneath her right arm, and steadied and supported by her left hand, for it is perceptibly heavier than usual.

Still, the handbag is so positioned that its gleaming brass label shines outward—­Prada.

By instinct, unconscious, vanity’s gesture even on this day—­Prada.

Is this the final day of her life, or is this the final day of a life?

Of course she has memorized the number: 6183.

Could be a tattoo at her wrist. His claim on her.

Claim. Doom. She is not a poet, she is not a person adroit or comfortable with words, yet these words seem to her soothing like smooth cool stones laid over the shuttered eyes of the dead to bring them peace.

His room. In fact it’s a suite, two spacious rooms overlooking the Detroit River where he stays when he visits Detroit.

Though it is possible that he has different rooms for different visitors. She would not know this, he has never confided in her.

At the sixty-­first floor the cubicle stops with a hiss and a mild jolt. The glass door slides open, she has no choice but to step out. Something has been decided, she has no choice.

Gripping the handbag beneath her arm. Has she no choice?

Wondering is he awaiting her, near the elevator? Eager for her arrival?

She doesn’t see anyone. In neither direction, any human figure.

You can still turn back.

If now, no one will know.

Facing the row of elevators, a glass wall overlooking the riverfront, the river, a fierce white sun. A foreshortened view of Woodward Avenue far below, soundless traffic.

Why isn’t clear. Why she has come here, risking so much.

Never ask why. The challenge is the execution—­how.

Making her way along a windowless corridor following the room numbers in their ascent: 6133, 6149, 6160 . . . So slowly do the numbers rise, she feels a thrill of relief, she will never arrive at 6183.

Underfoot a thick plush carpet, as rosy as the interior of a lung. The far end of the corridor has dissolved. Closed doors to the horizon diminishing in size as they approach infinity.
No reason for her to approach 6183 simply because the person awaiting her inside the room has summoned her, if she wishes she can turn back.

. . . as if you’ve never been here.
Never left home.
Who would know? No one.

Yet, she doesn’t turn back. Feels herself drawn forward inexorably.

If you inhabit a riddle the only way to solve the riddle is to push forward to the end.

As the sleek glass cubicle ascended swiftly and unhesitatingly to the sixty-­first floor, so she makes her way to the suite that is his.

A faint odor of cigar smoke in her hair, in her nostrils that pinch with nausea so remote as to be merely residual, memory.

What is she wearing? A costume she has chosen with care, white linen is always discreet, a silk shirt, red silk Dior scarf gaily at her throat.

Elegantly impractical high heels, Saint Laurent kidskin sinking into the carpet. If she must suddenly turn and run, run for her life, the tight-­fitting shoes and the carpet will impede her.

One of those dreams in which she is a child again. She runs, runs. Her feet sink into something like sand, soft-­seeming but not soft.

Never making any progress. Each time she has run.

Each time, he looms behind her. Daddy’s strong hands threaten to seize her, lift her by her ribs . . .

A man’s claim, a doom.

The room numbers accelerate. It is a fact of life to which we never quite adjust ourselves, how out there moves at its allotted speed, no matter our wishes in here.

Approaching 6183 she begins to shiver. It is always the same, she has been here before, that vibrating sensation of a vehicle that is being driven too fast, dangerously fast, in blinding rain, through deep puddles lifting like waves rushing over the windshields.

The nape of her neck rests against a very cold stainless steel table, there is a drain just beneath. Her eyes stare open, unseeing. Only when your eyes are unseeing do you see all.

Yet, she presses on. In the Saint Laurent heels it is still December 1977, she has not yet entered the room for the final time. She is determined that she will come to the end of the riddle.

The brass plaque on the doorframe is 6183, each time it has been 6183.

And the sign hanging from the doorknob, scripted silver letters on lacquered black—­the identical warning sign:

privacy please!
do not disturb

I Am

I am a beautiful woman, I have a right to be loved.
I am a desirable woman, I have a right to desire.
When We Died
When we died, our (beautiful) (naked) bodies became inert matter.
When we died, our final, strangled screams were trapped in our throats.
(It would be said that, if you lay beside us in death and if you put your ear to our throats, and if you were worthy, you could hear a faint echo of this final scream.)
When we died, our torment ended. For mercy awaits us all.
When we died, none of you who had begat us were anywhere near.
When we died, we died alone, in terror. Because you were nowhere near.
When we died, ask yourself why did you have children if you don’t love us.
Ask why.
But when we died, our bodies were prepared lovingly for death as none of you would have prepared us.
When we died, our bodies were carefully bathed, the smallest bits of dirt removed from every crevice of our bodies and from beneath our (broken) fingernails, and the fingernails cut with cuticle scissors, rounded and even; as our hair was washed with a gentle shampoo, combed and neatly parted in such a way to suggest that whoever had so tenderly groomed us postmortem had not known us “in life.”
When our bodies were cleansed and as pure as our souls, we were lovingly “memorialized”: photographed.
Where the human eye would betray us and soon forget us, the Eye of the Camera would render us immortal.

Author

© Emily Soto / Trunk Archive
JOYCE CAROL OATES is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Life Achievement Award, the National Book Award, the Jerusalem Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Prix Femina, and the Cino Del Duca World Prize. She has been nominated several times for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national best sellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and the New York Times best seller The Falls. She is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Distinguished Professor of the Humanities Emerita at Princeton University and has been a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. View titles by Joyce Carol Oates