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"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)

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

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As there was no comprehending anything so preposterous, so totally unnatural if not silly, the moment of crisis passed—the usher returned to his post at the rear, and I returned to watching the movie.

I don’t think that I have ever incorporated this random incident into any work of fiction of mine—it hovers in my memory as bizarre, and singular, and very Lockportian.

It is not boasted in histories of Lockport and environs that, along with such renowned past residents as William E. Miller (Republican Barry Goldwater’s vice-presidential running mate in the 1964 election, in which Democrat Lyndon Johnson was overwhelmingly elected), William G. Morgan (inventor of volleyball) and more recently Dominic “Mike” Cuzzacrea (world record-holder for marathon running while flipping a pancake), the area’s most “known” resident is Timothy McVeigh, our homegrown terrorist/mass-murderer. Like me, McVeigh grew up in the countryside beyond Lockport—in McVeigh’s case the small village of Pendleton, where his father still resides; like me, for a while, McVeigh was bused into Lockport public schools. Like me, he would have been identified as “from the country” and very likely, like me, he was made to feel, and may have exalted in feeling, marginal, invisible.

He may have felt powerless, as a boy. He may have been watchful, a fantasist. He may have told himself, Wait! Your turn will come.

In a piece I wrote for the May 8, 1995, New Yorker, on the phenomenon of McVeigh—so cruel, crude and pitiless a terrorist that he never expressed remorse or regret for the many lives he’d taken, even when he learned that some of his victims were young children and not employees of the detested “federal government”—I observed that Lockport, well into the present, suggests a more innocent time imagined by Thornton Wilder or Edward Hopper, appropriated now by movie director David Lynch: the slightly sinister, surreal yet disarmingly “normal”-seeming atmosphere of a quintessential American town trapped in a sort of spell or enchantment. That much remains unchanged over several decades—there is the Niagara Hotel on Transit Street, for instance, already seedy and disreputable in the 1950s when I had to pass by it on my way to and from school—is a consequence not of nostalgic urban planning but of economic recession. Harrison Radiator Company has been restructured and relocated, though its sprawling buildings at Walnut Street remain, mostly vacant, renamed Harrison Place. The derelict bus station has closed, replaced by a parking lot and a commercial building; Lockport High has long since vanished, moved to a newer side of town; the stately old Niagara County Bank has been reborn as a “community college.” But the Lockport Public Library remains unchanged, at least from the street—the beautiful Greek temple-facade remains, and the jewel-like green lawn; to the rear, a multimillion-dollar addition has tripled its size. Here is unexpected change in Lockport—a good change.

And there remains the canal—dug by immigrant labor, Irishmen, Poles and Germans who frequently died in the effort and were buried in the muddy banks of the canal—a waterway now placid, stately, a “tourist attraction” as it never was in its days of utility.

In America, history never dies—it’s reborn as “tourism.”

Postscript: October 16, 2009. As a guest of the Lockport Public Library inaugurating a lecture series in honor of a legendary Lockport resident, beloved teacher John Koplas, from whom my parents had taken night classes, I have returned to my hometown city—in fact, to the Palace Theatre! Instead of the 20 to 40 people I’d envisioned, there is an audience of more than 800 crowded into the now “historic” theater; on the marquee where once such names as Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Cary Grant were emblazoned is Joyce Carol Oates Oct. 16, above Hell Rell Oct. 17—a rapper from New York City.

Unlike the downscale Rialto, the Palace has been smartly renovated and refurbished, reborn as a theater that sometimes shows first-run films but more often is rented out to traveling productions, amateur local theater and one-time events like this evening’s. Before my presentation I am brought downstairs to the “green room”—a barren corridor of dressing rooms, a furnace room, closets—how unnerving this is, to find myself behind the scenes of the Palace Theatre, the temple of dreams! And in this starkly lighted setting, so antithetical to romance, to be confronting my past—as in one of those dreams in which one’s life flashes before one’s eyes—Am I really here? Here—in the Palace Theatre where long ago in the 1930s, before he’d started to work at Harrison’s, my father Frederic Oates was a sign painter, making posters for coming attractions?

On stage, I am greeted with enthu­siastic applause. Perhaps I am perceived as one who has swum across a vast stretch of water, or climbed through an abyss.

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