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Joyce Carol Oates's 'Little Bird of Heaven,' Reviewed by Michael Lindgren

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By Michael Lindgren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 16, 2009


By Joyce Carol Oates

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Ecco. 442 pp. $25.99

With "Little Bird of Heaven," Joyce Carol Oates returns again to depictions of life in Sparta, N.Y., "the doomed city on the Black River." In this latest offering, the fading blue-collar burg has been rocked by the grisly murder of one Zoe Kruller, a troubled but charismatic country singer with a taste for seedy pleasures.

Zoe was found beaten and strangled in her bed in a run-down apartment on the wrong side of town. Estranged from her husband, she had been living in squalid semi-prostitution, and the feeling among the shabby-genteel townspeople, who are a little too close to Zoe's milieu for empathy or compassion, is that she somehow got what she deserved. The police investigating the crime are certain she died at the hands of her lover or her ex-husband. When the investigation stalls over lack of evidence, however, the murder remains unsolved, effectively casting the families of those involved into an endless purgatory of suspicion.

The fallout from the unhappy woman's demise falls largely on the shoulders of Aaron, her anomic son, and Krista Diehl, the daughter of the local roustabout with whom Zoe was having an affair. Both children believe that the other's father is responsible for the murder, setting up crosscurrents of sin and stain that reverberate throughout the narrative, which jumps back and forth across the passage of two decades in the lives of these death-haunted characters.

This is a powerful novel. Oates's feel for the rhythms of hardscrabble life and its sour mix of alcoholism, suicide, drug abuse, adultery and murder is as keen as ever. In Sparta she has created a fictional universe to stand beside Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Cheever's Shady Hill. Her descriptions of the geography of urban decay -- the rusted bridges, tangled back alleys and trash-strewn lots -- are as vivid as any naturalist's portrayal of more felicitous scenes. Her unsentimental language makes a high-lonesome kind of poetry out of otherwise sordid and unremarkable circumstance.

This is not to say that "Little Bird of Heaven" is without flaws; its pacing is, shall we say, stately, and at times the author lingers over descriptive passages that could have been dispatched more crisply. A book that starts out as a standard police procedural but fizzles into uncertainty and stasis may be realistic, but it will frustrate readers with more conventional expectations.

By now, however, most readers probably have settled ideas about Oates anyway, and "Little Bird of Heaven" is unlikely to change any minds. Despite her long and prestigious career, in certain circles she suffers from the perception that her superheated realism is not sufficiently literary or experimental. There are three reasons for this canard:

The first is the staggering volume of Oates's output. While some of her work can feel either rushed or recycled, it is worth noting that James, Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope, to name a few, produced an equivalent amount of fiction. But critics, especially male ones, are in love with the idea of the author as heroic artiste, a reclusive mystic whose triumphal verbal artifacts are the product of a decade or more of tortured cogitation. This is a purely 20th-century invention. The idea that writing is a craft, that it is work and, like baking or washing dishes or painting houses, can be done daily and well, is anathema to the hoary "great man" theory of literature.

The second reason for the disdain Oates sometimes provokes is that she eschews postmodernism gamesmanship, and it is difficult to think of a writer less burdened with irony -- the kudzu vine of contemporary fiction. Fashion aside, novels like "Little Bird of Heaven," with its mixture of the Gothic and the fatalistic, mark Oates as our closest contemporary analogue to Hawthorne: lyrical, moral, unforgiving.

And finally, there's the poverty, economic and intellectual, of Oates's subjects. Like everyone else, literary critics enjoy reading about characters who resemble themselves, but Oates's narratives are markedly free of eccentric academics, hipster smart-alecks and entry-level publishing ingenues. For Raymond Carver or Cormac McCarthy to write scenes with unshaven characters drinking from the bottle in boardinghouse rooms with stained and faded floral wallpaper registers as noble and bitter and true. To do so as a woman, as a spiritual descendant of Austen and Woolf and Wharton, however, looks to the inflexible-minded as slightly out of focus, as though she were slumming or trying to be something she's not. But Oates's refusal to write soggy family sagas or dating-life confessionals is its own form of toughness. What else would you expect her to do? She's the original Girl From the North Country.

Lindgren is a musician and poet who divides his time between New York City and Pennsylvania.

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