WHAT I LIVED FOR

By Joyce Carol Oates

Dutton. 608 pp. $23.95

JEROME "CORKY" CORCORAN, the hero of Joyce Carol Oates's new novel, What I Lived For, is a millionaire builder, a 5-foot-9-inch, red-haired bundle of Irish energy. He's a small-time politician who "always disclaims political ambition. I'm a businessman, not a politician but, sure, he likes the public exposure, the applause, the heat of elections and the way you feel, when you win, you've put something over on somebody."

We meet Corky on a street in Union City, N.Y., his town, in his beloved Cadillac De Ville, on his way to visit his mistress, a woman married to an aging, disabled judge. He's late, as usual, and due to an inconvenient suicide and ensuing police action, traffic comes to a halt. Corky, antsy as a 10-year-old, gets out and starts directing traffic. He's a city councilman, after all, and he's proud of himself for knowing Union City so well that he finds an alternate route for traffic, even if the cop on the scene appears annoyed. This is one of the multitude of unknowing mistakes that Corky will make throughout the novel, a story that spans Memorial Day weekend of 1992. In flashbacks, a prologue, and a revelatory epilogue, we gain the entire scope of Corky's life.

What I Lived For is set in a gritty town on Lake Erie, much like Oates's hometown of Millersport, N.Y. It shares a tone as well as a setting with much of her previous fiction -- 23 novels and 18 short-story collections. Oates has the uncanny ability to create a sense of impending violence as of a coming electric storm. From her early oft-anthologized short story, "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?", in which there is no violence at all, to her later novels, Black Water and Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart, we can feel the prickle of it in the air long before it arrives.

In characteristically unflinching style Oates begins this novel with a murder -- Corky's father, Tim Corcoran, also a builder, was gunned down on his doorstep on Christmas Eve 1959 for running afoul of a union. It was a murder Corky might have witnessed, but he insists he did not. Even when he was shown pictures of men to identify, he refused. Partly because he's an orphan -- his mother lost her mind and he was raised by his Uncle Sean and Aunt Frances -- he has the persistent terror that his relationships with other men will turn out to be a losing game of musical chairs. A bunch of guys he admires -- one of them Vic Slattery, childhood pal, son of Mayor Oscar Slattery and himself now an important politician -- wind up at a bar, and somehow Corky's the only one left with no chair, and no one pays attention. For Corky, it's a rejection worse than being jilted by a woman. Women are replaceable, nearly interchangeable. Men are different -- everything he does, he does to impress men. "I'm Corky Corcoran," is his motto, "I'm your man."

The traffic-stopping suicide -- unbeknownst to Corky -- is a young, beautiful woman called Marilee Plummer. She had recently made headlines by accusing Marcus Steadman, a city councilman, of rape. But Marilee is more than just a pretty face on the groupie fringe of local politics; she's a good friend of Corky's ex-stepdaughter, Thalia, and she's also someone whom Corky once tried to pick up in a bar -- a pick-up that ended in an emergency room visit for Corky.

Thalia, the stepdaughter, is one of the great unresolved mysteries of Corky's life -- he met her when she was 8 years old, and it was a kind of love at first sight for both. Though he never laid a hand on her in any way that he would interpret as sexual -- to the last he would define himself as a decent man -- she has told others that he did abuse her. After her bouts with anorexia and her unpredictable behavior, Corky's convinced that she's coming apart at the seams. She insists that her friend's death was not a suicide, and, fearful for her own life, she has disappeared. Worse, she's stolen Corky's prize possession, his vintage .38 Luger.

Oates presents us with mystery upon mystery as Corky goes caroming like a pinball around Union City in his Cadillac, skirting the edges of the inscrutable truth. After drinking too much he breaks into Thalia's apartment looking for evidence and finds a snapshot of her with Marilee Plummer at some sort of political affair where there are no wives. With them in the picture is Vic Slattery, son of the mayor; the older politician had paid Corky's way through an exclusive Catholic school. Corky's too drunk, too filled with adult naivete, to see the truth. He prides himself on his street savvy, yet so adores these men that he can't see into the murk surrounding them and their politics.

His is the utterly unexamined life. When it's all done -- after all the hustle and handshaking, after all the bluster and deal-making, after all the sex and pursuit of women -- will Corky Corcoran have any idea what he lived for, what it was that impelled him? As he slams around Union City, searching for Thalia and for some kind of answer to why Marilee Plummer died, he's like Dante in a Cadillac, making his way deeper into hell.

He misses appointments, misses drinks, then dinner, at the Slatterys', makes outrageous bets and signs checks he can't cover for properties he'd be a fool to buy.

By turns charming and deeply vulgar, passively racist and hideously misogynistic, Corky Corcoran is one of the most astonishing fictional creations in recent memory. We get him at his most base -- including the rape of a drunken campaign worker -- yet we never once get the sense of the author condescending either to him or her reader. Oates gives us a grotesque, yet he's perfectly understandable, and in many ways he's the reflection of ourselves that we project on our elected officials, the kind of public person whom, when he's good, we can point to and say, "He's our man," and when he's bad, we can turn away from in revulsion. Though she has proven her ability on paper as a chameleon before, Oates has crawled so deeply and convincingly into the soul of Corky Corcoran that we never once get the sense that there's anything she doesn't know about "manhood," about men's deepest, most closely guarded secrets. Too long by at least a hundred pages, this is still one of the most compelling and important new books you will read this winter.

Stephen Stark's novel "Second Son" was published in paperback in September.