Story Playlist 25: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Joyce Carol Oates: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966) Joyce Carol Oates begins her most famous story with the self-absorbed personality of Connie, a 15-year-old girl in a small town in 1960s America. Over the last two decades, authors (encouraged by publishers) have felt the need to start stories and novels and even history books in medias res, right at the center of the action, to hook the reader, before stepping back to fill out the back story and develop character. Gone are the days of Balzac’s Pere Goriot, which opens with some thirty pages that simply describe the exterior of a country inn. Balzac would never find a publisher these days. Perhaps today’s attention-deficit readers are too impatient to wait through a slow burn? If they aren’t engrossed by page two—paragraph two?—they are unlikely to buy the book.

But to understand Connie, it’s crucial to see Connie’s discontentment with her family, her teenaged sullenness, and the kind of life she leads, where the highlight of her week is a burger and Coke at a drive-thru where the older kids hang out. While there with another boy, she is spotted by an odd-looking loner with wild dark hair in a gold-painted convertible, who leers at her and says, “I’m gonna get you.”

Sometime later, Connie’s parents and sister head out to a barbeque, and Connie insists on staying home. Oates prepares the scene in such a way that, although it is a bright, sunny Sunday and nothing bad has happened yet, we will Connie to go with her parents, not to remain home alone. This is due to tone and non-explicit foreshadowing, with Oates’ prose underscoring Connie’s vulnerability. And so that sound of a car coming up the gravel drive is chilling to us though only a curiosity to Connie. Until she sees it’s the gold convertible. Inside sits the boy from the drive-thru acting as if she should be expecting him. He introduces himself as Arnold Friend, and he’s politely aggressive; he knows her, and knew she’d be alone and knows where her family are. At first, perhaps, Connie finds this intriguing, but Oates lets us feel her unease as well. She’s clearly been accosted by strange men before and is not a wide-eyed innocent; she knows what Friend wants.

Still playing the friendly small-town boy—though Connie insists he’s “not from around here”—Friend introduces Ellie, his silent partner in the car who sits with his transistor tuned to the same hip radio station Connie has on in the house. Friend, outside his car and moving around it, points out the inscriptions on it: his name, and some cryptic numbers—33, 19, and 17—and a few slangy phrases. He doesn’t explain the numbers, but the curious reader can decipher their meaning, with a little work: they refer to a Biblical passage, Judges 19:17, in which a stranger is asked the questions that provide the story’s title.

As they converse, Friend is clearly not taking no for an answer, and we see how trapped Connie is. Our fears for her increase when she realizes that Friend is not a boy at all but nearer thirty and his friend is even older, perhaps forty. Friend moves oddly and tends to lean on things and Connie notices that his boots seem not to be filled by his feet, which creates a sense of freakishness that Oates doesn’t overplay. We imagine his feet are perched, satyr-like, in stuffed cowboy boots that lend him an illusion of height.

When Friend flatly refuses to leave, Connie retreats, threatening to call the police. Friend warns her that he will not enter the house unless she picks up the phone, and insists that she will come out to him voluntarily. We might find an element of the supernatural in this—by some accounts, vampires cannot cross a threshold unless they are invited, so Friend’s comment echoes the kind of hypnotic power vampires commonly exercise in legend and horror films. Friend finally threatens to wait outside and kill Connie’s family if she does not come out. After a freak-out moment in which she picks up the phone and simply screams without dialing, Connie becomes numb to what is happening. She continues to hear Friend’s efforts to be reassuringly seductive—telling her he understands her better than her family does and that the purpose of a sweet girl like her is “to give in,” but in a disembodied way, as though it were happening to someone else. She crosses the threshold into a fate left to our imagination.

The tension in the dialogue between Connie and Friend is huge and masterful, provoking that wonderful internal “Don’t do it!” reaction on the part of the reader. My grandmother literally shouts “Don’t go in there!” at the TV screen during moments of tension in films, and to feel that sensation in a short story is to struggle not to skip ahead, to remain in the sickening state of fear Oates creates. As Friend plays cat-and-mouse with Connie, we can also see Oates toying with the reader: “Arnold Friend” sounds suspiciously like “are no friend”; the stuffed boots and the hypnotic patter turn Friend into some sort of hybrid monster, part vampire, part satyr, part incubus (a sort of vampirical demon who hunts for sex rather than blood); the cryptic use of the Biblical quotation might suggest an allegorical dimension, or at least a twisted sense of the Bible’s commonality, as when the Misfit discusses Jesus with the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And, for those who like to look beyond a story to its sources, there is a true crime element as well, since some of the story’s details come from the case of Charles Schmid.

In 1961, Schmid (Smitty to his friends, lovers, and victims) murdered a number of young women in Tucson, Arizona. Schmid was socially adept, murdering women who he knew, in some cases girlfriends, rather than prostitutes or abducted strangers, as is often the case with serial killers. By all accounts he was charming and knew how to appeal to the natural insecurities of girls to draw them out, making them feel appreciated, before his sociopathic streak kicked in and he killed them. Oates read about Schmid, including his custom-made cowboy boots that he stuffed with paper to make himself taller, in a Life magazine article about the Tucson killings. What intrigued her was the victim’s point of view, which is what she recreates brilliantly in her story, giving us a wondrous layer cake: part horror, part true crime, part allegory, part character study—and all ingenious.