Another gallery of grotesquerie from the staggeringly prolific Oates.
This latest collection of Oates’ previously published short stories (the sheer range of venues, from Playboy to Ellery Queen, The New Yorker to video game-inspired e-fiction is an indication of her vast reach) showcases her talent for imbuing mundane events with menace and the kind of irony that springs from narrow brushes with disaster. Thus, in the title story, the depraved serial killer of a Hollywood pinup model known as Black Dahlia could, but for circumstance, just as easily have targeted the starlet who would become Marilyn Monroe. Protagonists are drawn, with equal authority, from the underclass and the self-satisfied professional class. In “I.D.,” a pre-adolescent whose single mother has left her alone for days desperately clings to normalcy even as she’s being called out of class, possibly to identify her mother’s body. In two stories, “Roma!” and “Spotted Hyenas: A Romance,” middle-aged women married to prominent, uncommunicative men act out in diverse ways, from a frightening foray down Rome’s back alleys to a walk on the wild side as a were-hyena. (“A Brutal Murder in a Public Place” is a more contrived attempt at human/animal identification.) Narrators can be so subtly unreliable as to force readers to question their own perceptions. In “Deceit,” a mother summoned to discuss her child’s possible abuse may be the perpetrator—her memory has been ravaged by anti-anxiety meds. The divorced father in “Run Kiss Daddy,” attempting to start again with a new family in a favorite vacation spot, uncovers evidence of a long-ago crime that could be his own. A young woman who finds a wallet on a train injects herself capriciously and dangerously into a family of strangers. The linked stories “San Quentin” and “Anniversary” cover the excruciating discomfort—and unmistakable voyeurism—of well-meaning individuals teaching in maximum security prisons.
Although her material can be macabre, mawkish and deeply unsettling, Oates' hypnotic prose ensures that readers will be unable to look away.