By Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco. 481 pp. $26.95
For 40 years, Joyce Carol Oates has maintained a creative dialogue with the roiling cauldron of contemporary American culture, writing unflinchingly about the oddities that bubble up into the headlines. Beginning with her 1966 classic short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," which was inspired by the tabloid psychopath known as the "Pied Piper of Tucson," she has been equally at ease creating empathetic fictional portraits of the marginalized (the strong-willed daughter of a migrant worker in her 1967 novel A Garden of Earthly Delights, a serial sex killer in Zombie, 1995) and those anointed with the mixed blessing of fame (the protagonist of Black Water, published in 1992 and based on a Chappaquiddick-like accident; Marilyn Monroe in her 2000 novel Blonde). Oates frequently examines the lives of American families balancing precariously on the edge of social, financial or psychological ruin (in her 2001 novel We Were the Mulvaneys, an "ideal" American family deteriorates after the teenage daughter is raped).
In her hypnotic new novel, The Falls, Oates juxtaposes a majestic and dangerous natural phenomenon -- the Falls at Niagara -- with a man-made monstrosity, the deadly witches' brew of nuclear and toxic waste known as Love Canal -- as the threatening elements underlying a family saga of self-destruction and redemption.
As Oates points out in her front matter, the nation's honeymoon capital has a dark side: In the Victorian era the Falls -- the American, the Bridal Veil and the Horseshoe -- were thought to exert an uncanny, malevolent and hypnotic spell, luring their victims to throw themselves in. By 1900 Niagara Falls had become a "Suicide's Paradise."
The novel begins at 6:15 a.m. on June 12, 1950, when the gatekeeper of the Goat Island Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls notices a distracted man hurrying by. Suspecting a suicide, the gatekeeper follows but fails to prevent the man from throwing himself into the Horseshoe Falls.
Back in the honeymoon suite of a grand 19th-century resort hotel, Ariah, Gilbert Erskine's newlywed wife of 21 hours, awakes to an empty bed, a hangover and a suicide note: "The hurt. The humiliation. The unspeakable shame." Pale, red-haired Ariah is a minister's daughter, sheltered from the ways of the flesh. Her husband, a minister, was equally naive. It is clear that both have been shocked by the physicality of the wedding night. But his disappearance is not a proven suicide for seven suspenseful days and nights. During this week Ariah keeps mum about the note and haunts the area around the Falls, gathering a nascent legendary status as "the Widow-Bride."
Dirk Burnaby, a prominent Niagara Falls attorney, finds himself drawn to Ariah in her dramatic distress. He doesn't know why, but Oates gives us a pointed hint by describing his eccentric, narcissistic mother -- Claudine Burnaby, a former Buffalo debutante so grieved at the loss of her attractiveness that she has gone into hiding in the 23-room family estate.
Dirk protects Ariah from her parents, who have installed themselves in the hotel to await the outcome of the search for Gilbert, and her in-laws, who insist their son could not have committed suicide. When Gilbert's bloated body rises to the surface several miles below Horseshoe Falls after a week of spinning in the mammoth frothing maelstrom known as the "Devil's Whirlpool," Ariah insists upon identifying him. Then she collapses.
Dirk pursues Ariah back to her hometown of Troy, and within a month of her first marriage, they are wed. Later, realizing she is pregnant, Ariah frets about which of her husbands is the father of her firstborn, Chandler. When her second son, Royall, is born, eight years later, there is no doubt of his resemblance to Dirk. Their daughter Juliet is born, and the Burnabys seem the happy prosperous family. But sinister undercurrents at work in the world around them exert a psychic pull on Dirk. Shortly after Juliet's birth, he succumbs once more to the lure of a distraught woman whom he thinks of as "the Woman in Black." He is as obsessed with her as he once was with Ariah, but his focus is professional. Nina Olshaker is a young mother whose daughter has died of leukemia. She suspects that the cause was pollution, the thick smelly muck that oozes up in basements throughout the neighborhood built upon the area once known as Love Canal. Dirk is the only lawyer in town willing to represent her. In pursuit of justice for the "Woman in Black," he alienates family and friends. He loses the case; a week later his car plunges through a guard rail into the Niagara River. His body is never found.
Ariah believes she is cursed, that the suicide of her first husband led to the death of the second. Although she shields her children from information about their father, she passes along her anxieties. The family lives in "near destitution," and the youngsters grow up hearing schoolyard taunts, "Burn-a-by! Shame, shame's the name!" The novel, always fast-moving, gathers even more momentum as Ariah's sons reach manhood and begin to explore the mystery of their father's death, and her daughter, a dreamy teenager, hears voices calling her to join her father. To save themselves and their sister, Chandler and Royall must confront the family's deepest secrets.
The Falls takes as its historic moment the latter half of the 20th century, when the age of conformity was dissolving into the Vietnam era. Yet it displays the sumptuous detail and breathless narrative of a 19th-century epic. The archetypal images of the Falls, the Devil's Whirlpool, the honeymoon suite, the Widow-Bride and the Woman in Black emphasize its gothic roots.
With inimitable virtuosity, Oates weaves the still potent lore of Niagara into her extensive narrative. Using imagery of the river and falls as a driving force, she creates a seamless and engrossing flow that in the end seems natural, inevitable. Once you reach the dread stretch of whitewater rapids in the Niagara River called the Deadline, there is no turning back -- you are committed to going over the Falls. At this point, Oates writes, "You realize that the speed, the propulsion, has nothing to do with you. It is something happening to you." Such is the experience of reading the latest from this bountiful, endlessly curious and increasingly masterful writer. *
Jane Ciabattari, author of the short story collection "Stealing the Fire," is spending the fall term as professor of English and distinguished writer in residence at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.