Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again

The celebrated writer returns to the town of her birth to revisit the places that haunt her memory and her extraordinary fiction

"For residents of the area who have gone to live elsewhere, it's the canal—so deep-set in what appears to be solid rock ... that resurfaces in dreams," says Oates. (Landon Nordeman)
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What we dream of, that we are.

What I most love about Lockport is its timelessness. Beyond the newer facades of Main Street—just behind the block of buildings on the northern side—is the Erie Canal: this impressive stretch of the 524-mile New York State Canal System connecting the Great Lakes with the Hudson River and traversing the breadth of the state. For residents of the area who have gone to live elsewhere, it’s the canal—so deep-set in what appears to be solid rock, you can barely see it unless you come close, to lean over the railing of the wide bridge at the foot of Cottage Steet—that resurfaces in dreams: the singular height of the falling water, the steep rock walls, the gritty, melancholy smell of stone, froth, agitated water; the spectacle of the locks opening, taking in water and closing; the ever-shifting water levels bearing boats that seem miniaturized in the slow, methodical ritual-like process. “Locksborough,” a contending name for the early 19th-century settlement, might have been a more accurate one, since there are numerous locks, to accommodate the especially steep incline of the land. (Lake Erie to the west is on a much higher elevation than the Hudson River, and Lockport—“Uptown” and “Lowertown”—is built on an escarpment.) Standing on the Big Bridge—“the widest bridge in the world,” as it was once identified—you feel a sensation of vertigo as you peer down at, or into, the canal 50 feet below; not so overwhelming as the sensation you feel staring at the legendary falls at Niagara 20 miles to the west but haunting, unnerving and uncanny. (Think of “uncanny” in the Freudian sense—Unheimlich—a sign/symptom of a deep-rooted turbulence associated with buried and unarticulated desires, wishes, fears.) In the midst of city-life, at the very noon-tide of day-life, there is the primary, primitive vein of elemental life in which human identity is vanished, as if it had never been. Falling water, turbulent water, dark frothy water churning as if it were alive—somehow, this stirs the soul, makes us uneasy on even cheery visits back home. You stare down into the canal for a long dazed minute and then turn back blinking—where?

You didn’t let Joyce see, did you? Oh—Fred!
Not a thing for a little girl to see. I hope she didn’t...

An early memory of being with Daddy—in Lockport—and there is a street blocked with traffic and people—one of the narrow streets that run parallel to the canal, on the farther side of downtown—and Daddy has stopped his car to get out and see what is happening—and I have gotten out too, to follow him—except I can’t follow him, there are too many people—I hear shouts—I don’t see what is happening—unless (somehow) I do see—for I have a vague memory of “seeing”—a blurred memory of—is it a man’s body, a corpse, being hauled out of the canal?

Joyce didn’t see. Joyce was nowhere near.
Yes, I’m sure!

Yet years later, I will write of this. I will write of a little girl seeing, or almost seeing, a man’s body hauled from a canal. I will write of the canal set deep in the earth; I will write of the turbulence of falling water, steep rock-sides, the roiling water, unease and distress and yet at the core, childlike wonderment. And I will write—repeatedly, obsessively—of the fact that adults cannot shield their children from such sights, as adults cannot shield their children from the very fact of growing up, and losing them.

So strange!—“uncanny.”

That, between the ages of 11 and 15—through sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grades—I was a “commuter student” first at John E. Pound School on High Street, Lockport; then at North Park Junior High in the northeast section of town near Outwater Park. (Though the term “commuter student” wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary at that time.) For five grades, I’d gone to a one-room schoolhouse in Millers­port—then for no reason that was ever explained, to me at least, I was transferred to Lockport, seven miles to the north—a considerable distance for a child at the time.

In this era before school buses—at least in this rural corner of Erie County—such commuter students were required to wait out on the highway for Greyhound buses. Decades later I can recall the sudden sight—at a distance of perhaps a quarter-mile—of the large bus emerging out of nowhere, at the intersection of Millersport Highway with Transit Road, headed in the direction of my family home on Transit.

The bus! Not a greyhound, it seemed to me, but a large ungainly beast—a buffalo, or a bison.


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