BROKE HEART BLUES

By Joyce Carol Oates

Dutton. 367 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Linda Wolfe

Joyce Carol Oates is the bullet train of contemporary fiction, speeding so quickly from one book to the next that it's a wonder she hasn't run out of that all-too-scarce literary fuel, imagination. But she hasn't, as Broke Heart Blues, her 29th novel, amply demonstrates.

This time around, Oates uses her astonishingly plentiful imagination to paint the portrait of virtually an entire town, or at least of virtually an entire generation of a town. Following characters over a period of 30 years and employing an unusual narrative device, the use of a collective "we" to tell most of her story, she writes about a high school basketball hero accused of murdering his mother's abusive lover and about a myriad of the hero's classmates, suburban students who become obsessed with his case. The classmates are Oates's chorus, relating and commenting on the dramatic events of the athletic star's life. But they are also protagonists, central figures in a series of lesser dramas, the spectacles and tragedies that are the stuff of ordinary life. The book follows their lives as much as it follows that of their hero. He will live on the edge, will flee police, face trial, endure prison, reinvent himself. His classmates will fail at love, have careers that fizzle out, lose friends to suicide, breasts to cancer, and youthful dreams to adult drowse.

The town in which all this happens is smack in the heart of what we have come to think of as Oates country -- western New York, somewhere in the vicinity of Buffalo. Into this sleepy conservative town, sometime in the 1960s, comes the Heart family, the mother, Dahlia, a black jack dealer from Las Vegas, her father, Aaron Leander Heart, a Texan with a cowboy hat and a gun, her two youngest children, whose names no one in town can ever remember, and her favorite, 11-year-old John Reddy who has the "eyes of a child who's seen too much and knows it isn't over yet, he'll be seeing more."

By the time he's a teenager, the boy has seen so much that he's become a kind of aloof James Dean who dresses "in a grungy black T-shirt missing both sleeves and oil-stained jeans and his usual biker boots." But if he gives the appearance of being a rebel without a cause, he in fact is a most traditional and goal-directed youth, "wanting only, since his father's death, to keep the family together. . . . Wanting only that their lives wouldn't unravel like one of the cheap sweaters their mother bought them at Sears. Fall apart like her cheap high-heeled shoes -- the heel suddenly detached from the shoe so that poor Mommy, flushed with shame, had to limp back home."

The aptly named John Reddy Heart, who sacrifices himself to preserve his family yet ends up cut off from his mother and siblings and incapable of starting a family of his own, is a touching character. So too are some of the minor figures in the book, among them Veronica Myers, the class beauty, who goes on to have a career in Hollywood and an affair "(at least, `People' so reported)" with John Travolta, but finds happiness only at 50, in the arms of her childhood sweetheart; Ritchie Eickhorn, once one of the class brains, later "a once-promising poet who has lost his youth, and his ambition" who drifts "into love as a small tethered boat drifts with the current to the end of its capacity for drift and then is brought up rudely short"; and Art Lutz, a class comic who at 41, "bored to oblivion by his curly-blond wife, would find himself dozing on long headache flights from Buffalo to L.A., from L.A. to Buffalo, dreaming of Mary Louise Schultz's perfect girl-breasts, cupping them gently in his hands, his reverent worshipful hands," and at 51 finally gets actually to touch them, though when he does, they're just foam-rubber protuberances.

The book is crammed with characters, rife with life. And yet it doesn't quite work, for there are too many characters, too many people to whom we are introduced, for the most part exceedingly casually. Information psychologists years ago determined that the human mind was capable of remembering at any one time only seven bits of information, plus or minus two. Oates taxes the brain with her vast cast. But more importantly, for three-quarters of the book -- the three-quarters that is narrated by the chorus -- she writes in a rushed and slapdash fashion, dropping names, summarizing life histories, burying significant story elements amid a morass of trivia. No doubt she was hoping to do what her failed poet, Ritchie Eickhorn, tries to do, "evoke a mood. A passion. Not an individual passion -- something communal, collective. Our `yearnings of infinitude.' It's the black hole in the firmament where God used to be."

But her collective voice is indeed a black hole, a space so dense that light neither penetrates nor emanates from it. It is only when we are treated to a small section written from John Reddy Heart's point of view that the book takes on power and

drive. That Oates chose to eschew this more conventional form of narrative for her choral method is ambitious -- but ultimately unsatisfying.

Linda Wolfe's most recent book is "Love Me To Death: A Journalist's Memoir of the Hunt For Her Friend's Killer."