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Tough Girls, Foolish Choices : FOXFIRE Confessions of a Girl Gang By Joyce Carol Oates (Dutton: $21; 328 pp.)

August 22, 1993|Reviewed by Cynthia Kadohata

"Men are the enemy," declare the teen-age girls in Joyce Carol Oates' new novel. And no wonder they think that, for the males they encounter include a group of men who regularly rape a dwarf they tie to a bed; a lecher who tries to coerce his 14-year-old niece into having sex in exchange for a used typewriter he plans to throw out anyway; a stranger who later tries to rape the same girl, and an assortment of grown men who lust after the teen-agers. The girls, in the process of declaring war on these demon men, Kadohata is the author of "In the Heart of the Valley of Love" (Viking). become demons themselves--violent and conniving and exuberant in their victories over the opposite sex.

"Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang" chronicles the 3 1/2-year history of a gang five girls form in 1953 in a town in Upstate New York. Legs, the charismatic leader, christens the gang "Foxfire" and leads the girls on a series of retributive adventures against men. Maddy is the fictitious author of the confessions. She adores Legs, as do all the girls. Legs is lean, agile and androgynously beautiful, cruel, generous and gloriously courageous.

The gang begins with a drunken initiation rite in which the members tattoo red flames on their shoulders, light candles and grapple topless. Foxfire becomes famous in town, for acts of benevolence as well as of retribution, and other girls clamor to join.

Meanwhile, a fierce, gleeful paranoia has set in. "The more you see of the world the more enemies you discover," Maddy thinks at one point. Though she describes Foxfire's generosity, much of the novel is spent on a succession of encounters with the enemy. The girls humiliate a lascivious teacher by painting, among other things, "I teach math & tickle tits" on the side of his car, and after Maddy's repulsive uncle exposes himself during a trap the girls have planned, they beat him until his blood is "splattered everywhere, on himself, on his assailants' bare legs, arms, soaking into their clothes." Maddy begs her Foxfire sisters to stop beating him, and, reluctantly, they do.

"Foxfire" is not a delicate book, nor a book of fine-tuned prose, but rather a riveting whirlwind of a novel driven by the passions of Legs and her followers. One afternoon during a scuffle at school, Legs threatens a boy with a switchblade. Later that day, she steals a car and the girls speed through the streets as a cop chases them. The rush of words matches the whirlwind action, as in the end of the stolen-car scene, when the car crunches to a halt with the girls and their mascot: " . . . they're buried in a cocoon of bluish white and there's a sound of whimpering, panting, sobbing, a dog's puppyish yipping and a strong smell of urine and Legs is crying breathlessly half in anger half in exultation, caught there behind the wheel unable to turn, to look around, to see, 'Nobody's dead, right?' "

After the car theft, Legs spends some time in reform school, where she learns that women are sometimes the enemy, too. Still, when she gets out, Foxfire continues to target men. The girls, joined by some new initiates, lease a house together, earning rent money by enticing and compromising older men. But the gang doesn't earn enough this way, and finally Legs begins to plan their biggest crime: the kidnaping of a wealthy man whose daughter visited Legs in reform school as part of a Christian Big Sister program.

Up to this point, the gang has given the girls something their dismal lives couldn't. It has given them the opportunity to be amazed by themselves, to feel power and joy and horror in a way that Maddy, for one, may never feel again. Maddy has always been the thoughtful one, and because she possesses serious doubts about the kidnaping, Legs asks her to leave the gang. I wish we could have witnessed more of Maddy's emotional development, to help distribute weight throughout the novel, to give varying weight to each of the events, and special weight to Maddy's expulsion and to Legs' eventual realization that "the Enemy is after all only a man." More of Maddy's life would also give the novel's moral ambiguity greater resonance.

But what makes "Foxfire" profound and wonderful is its way of showing that a lost life can be epic, that disaffection need not turn to indifference but rather to passion. "Foxfire" captures as well as any book I've read the visceral friendships among girls I remember from my early teens. We had feuds and spies and secret languages, we slept all in a row on the floor at slumber parties--a girl whose father beat her mother almost senseless; another who'd never met her father; a popular girl whose parents were alcoholics; and another whose mother threatened suicide. In those days when we still possessed our crudeness, our rawness, our sense of the mythic scope of our lives, when we were capable of both immense generosity and immense cruelty, in those days before we eagerly lost ourselves in boys, like the girls of Foxfire we found something in each other that we would later lose, and be a long time in recovering.

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