A student pointed me to a recent Joyce Carol Oates story in The New Yorker, called "Landfill," which is available for free online. It's about a young college student named Hector Campos, Jr., who is a pledge at a fraternity at a university in Michigan. One night he disappears mysteriously after drinking heavily at the frat house. Some blood is found at the trash dumpster outside the frat-house; several weeks later his body is found at the local landfill.
It's a decent enough story -- Oates paints some strongly visceral, experiential images -- like what it might be like to lie dying in a trash dumpster with a broken neck, for example. There is also some Catholic imagery in the middle of the story, which suggests a sympathetic reading: is Campos an exemplary, Christ-like figure of some kind? Does he die for the sins of American excess, the ugly psycho-social mess concealed in the American college system? (Shades of Duke Lacrosse) Alongside the sympathetic allegorical reading and the scathing portrait of fraternity life, Oates also throws in some references to evolution via a biology lecture ("Evolution is only possible through change, species change not by free will but blindly"), suggesting an equally viable, reading of Campos' death that is distinctly un-Christ-like: the death of a drunk fraternity brother who got stuck in a dumpster as a kind of natural selection, a fitting fate for someone who was, if you will, imperfectly adapted to whatever enables survival in today's college culture.
All fine and good. What's unsettling is that Oates' story bears a very close resemblance to a real death, which occurred in southern New Jersey a few months ago. John Fiocco, Jr., a college student at The College of New Jersey, died in the same mysterious way, and was discovered in the same way (at a landfill) a few weeks later. Oates even uses the date of Fiocco's own death/disappearance -- March 25.
Some faculty members at TCNJ noticed the parallels in Oates' story, and complained, leading to a small spate of media coverage in South Jersey and the Philadelphia area (see articles in the Inquirer and the Daily Princetonian). In these articles, Oates apologizes (in a way) for potentially hurting the feelings of the family and friends of John Fiocco, Jr., though she stops well short of saying, "I should never have written this story" or "I should have disguised the details of this young man's death more carefully." It's the usual double-speak of "I'm sorry if your feelings were hurt by what I knowingly and willfully did." (Shades of Kobe Bryant)
Obviously getting inspiration from today's headlines is a tried-and-true technique, used by many, if not most, contemporary writers. And I don't know that there were many complaints when Oates did a version of this earlier, with her famous novel Black Water, which did to Mary Jo Kopechne, Ted Kennedy, and Chappaquiddick what "Landfill" does to John Fiocco, Jr. The difference there might have been that her purpose in that novel was to unmask the myth of the Kennedys, and the corruption of Senator Ted Kennedy in particular. That is what one might call a political Roman a Clef, making an important feminist point. But none of that fire remains in "Landfill," and it's unclear what the point really is.
In general, real life is and must be fair game for fiction, but everything depends on how it's done. Here there's something senseless in the way Oates works closely with the story of this tragic death (she even uses the detail about blood found at the dumpster) and turns it into easy fodder for this short story. To my eye this isn't so much appropriation as it is exploitation -- the fictional equivalent of ambulance chasing.