Not too long after his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, hit the jackpot, Tom Wolfe took it upon himself to issue a literary manifesto. Compared with his own masterpiece, Wolfe asserted with characteristic modesty in Harper's magazine, American fiction had become pretty thin stuff. Word games, most of it. Pretentious experimentalism and a prissy academic disdain for the ''big, obvious sentiments and emotions'' of the realistic novel had stifled literary passion from sea to shining sea. Envisioning himself a sort of literary field marshal in a white suit, he called for ''a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.''
Like all polemics, Wolfe's gained force by all that it left out. If it's the realistic sweep and passion not to mention the sheer productivity of Dickens or Balzac he's after, he ought to have spared a word for Joyce Carol Oates. Though hardly without admirers, Oates never has had quite the acclaim she deserves as arguably the finest (and most accessible) realistic novelist of her generation. Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart shows her near the peak of her remarkable powers.
Actually, it's the work of Thomas Hardy more than anyone else's that Oates' new book calls to mind. Partly that's due to the willful provincialism of its setting. Like much of her most effective fiction, the novel takes place during the late '50s and early '60s in the blasted American landscape that she has made her own: a decaying industrial city in upstate New York, ''sixty miles south of Lake Ontario. . .thirty-five thousand inhabitants, a place of Ice Age terrain, saw-notched ridges, hills steep as attic steps.''
Partly too the author shares Hardy's ability to make readers empathize with her characters' most intimate dreams and illusions without allowing them to ignore the implacable grinding of fate upon their destinies. Oates' psychological insight into characters a 51-year-old white woman would seem to have no business writing about were she to heed those who would put racial, gender, and class barriers in the way of imagination can be almost scary.
As with many of the author's earlier novels, Because It Is Bitter hinges on an act of brutal though almost accidental violence. Were the truth to be known, a jury might call the bludgeoning death of ''Little Red'' Garlock sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street'' justifiable homicide. But only two people know exactly what happened, and they are both too scared and too smart to think they could tell. One is Iris Courtney, a white girl of 14; the other, Verlyn ''Jinx'' Fairchild, a black boy two years older. In the melodramatic racial climate of the late '50s, who would believe their story? In the face, that is, of all the lurid fantasies most people would prefer to believe.
''These colored kids,'' Iris Courtney's charming, boozy father had warned her, ''don't get too friendly with them. And don't ever be alone with them. The things a black man would like to do to a white girl. . . .They'd peel the skin off us if they could, they hate us so.'' Yet Iris, in part because it's forbidden and in part because her parents' own inexorable descent into alcoholic oblivion brings the family ever closer to the ghetto, nds herself drawn to Jinx, the star basketball player on her school's team. ''Yah, this nigger's one of the best,'' a friend taunts Jinx on the fateful night he becomes her half-willing protector. ''Gonna get him a basketball schol'ship someday go to college! Like he a white boy! Shittin' in a gold-plate bucket!''
Yet it is less from desire than because of their awful secret that Jinx's and Iris' lives become entwined. A voice whispers to Jinx in the extremity of his guilt that he would have nothing to fear were the pasty-faced little white bitch no longer alive. As for Iris, she has witnessed too much of her parents ''together in the small at, trapped like animals in a zoo enclosure'' to put her faith in romance. ''Love between men and women,'' she has come to believe, is ''the love of all the popular songs, is a hunger that mere possession can never quench.''
Iris' willpower and her growing intellectualism, the reader feels, can save her from her parents' fate, just as Jinx's athletic ability and determination can pull him from the ghetto whirlpool to which his older brother Sugar Baby succumbed. But can Iris ever trust anybody emotionally? Can anybody, for that matter, trust her? Will it be possible for Jinx to walk the tightrope strung between his ambition and his anger without falling off to either side? They are soulmates, Iris feels. But can they possibly learn to tell what's in their hearts and somehow help save each other? Is it possible for human beings to do that? Would the world let them?
Those familiar with her previous work will understand that these are not the kinds of questions an Oates novel either asks or answers directly. Rather, they are the questions that occur to her readers, pulling them along through page after compelling page, hoping for the best yet fearing for the worst. And normally getting it. Persons seeking uplifting advice ad best stick to Ann Landers; those in search of political answers to social problems should consult the editorial page. As a storyteller with few peers, Joyce Carol Oates deals in irony, pity, and compassion. Anybody who appreciates the art of fiction at all need do no more than read the first chapter. The rest will take care of itself.