'High Lonesome' From Joyce Carol Oates
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Joyce Carol Oates has culled from four decades of her published short stories plus some new works, to make up her new collection. The book is called, High Lonesome.
Alan Cheuse has our review.
Professor ALAN CHEUSE (George Mason University, Virginia): From the beginning of her, by now, long career, Joyce Carol Oates has always been a writer to conjure with. Taking up the legacy of Flannery O'Connor and embracing the Dostoevskian themes of crime and punishment, sin and redemption.
One day in Eden County, begins the title story of her 1966 collection, Upon the Sweeping Flood, in the remote Martian swamplands to the south, a man named Walter Stewart was stopped in the rain by a sheriff's deputy along a country road. Contrary to all good advice, Stewart drives into a hurricane and before the storm is over, upends his own life with an act of astonishing violence.
Here, in this beginning, in Eden County, we can see the fictive germ of a large number of Oates' stories to come. That of the problem of redemptive violence and the constant presence of inevitable menace and mayhem in otherwise placid lives.
But as any master of the form must be, Oates is more than Oates is more than a brilliant interpreter of contemporary materials. She often alerts us to the way in which she works consistently in the great tradition of the short story.
But the mid-1970s a number of these stories remind us she was well on her own way to becoming a classic writer. She took on themes of American working class and underclass life with an ease not usually demonstrated by a writer with such a high talent and ready grasp of classical technique.
As in all of her stories, she draws out our feelings by means of a dense infusion of details, both physical and psychological, which sometimes reveals her kinship with D.H. Lawrence, at his most psychologically intense. That Lawrenceian power surges through the ten new stories in this volume, stories that gather the concerns of our present decade. The pieties of victim-hood, the legacy of sought-after vice and corruption. The desperate search for kinship of one kind or another, into, as the title of one of these new pieces puts it, a gathering squall of art and emotion.
Sometimes Oates seems to be drawing her material from the daily political and gossip pages, sometimes from the crime section. Gathering evidence with the skill of a canny reporter and turning it into fiction of the highest esthetic sensibility.
Observing it as we do, in a book held at half-arm's length, life as Oates presents it seems something like the New Jersey River described by one of her narrators, a woman still fraught with a grief washed by the waters of time.
The Delaware is a broad, wide river that's sometimes swollen and fast moving after rains, and dangerous at such times. But often it looks languid, opaque. In a certain light, our rainy steel-colored New Jersey winter light, the river looks like dense lava flowing. You lapse into a dream. You forget that you could drown in that water.
BLOCK: The book is High Lonesome, by Joyce Carol Oates.
Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia.
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