The latest of Oates’ numerous collections offers 14 tales variously concerned with family relationships and crises.
Nine characteristic stories open the volume on a strong note. A married couple driving on the freeway discovers the fragility of their closeness in “Panic” when they are threatened by a school bus carrying teenagers who appear to be pointing a gun at them. “Landfill” poignantly shows a hardworking Latino family destroyed when their college-student son becomes the victim of a fraternity hazing. A young girl hideously scarred in a household “accident” seeks desperately for a way to survive and forgive her disturbed older sister in the breathlessly powerful “Special,” one of Oates’ best short works, which radiates the feeling of lived experience. In “The Blind Man’s Sighted Daughters,” reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence at his most intuitive, an embittered old man’s guilt over a crime for which he escaped punishment becomes the means by which his adult daughters put him in the emotional place he belongs and, just possibly, save themselves. Other stories focused repetitively on filial and fraternal attraction-repulsion (e.g., “Cutty Sark,” “Vigilante”) are less compelling, and the five concluding tales, primarily satirical, feel too familiar. “Dear Joyce Carol” shows a prominent author being harassed in letters by a deranged admirer who proclaims herself Joyce Carol’s rival and equal; it’s a concept Oates has used a few too many times. “Mistrial” tells the old, old story about a lonely juror attracted to a charmingly sinister defendant. “Dear Husband” is yet another companion to Oates’ novels Blonde and My Sister, My Love, channeling the story of child-murdering mother Andrea Yates into a fulsome autobiographical letter written from prison. Still, the onrushing prose and stabbing emotional intensity that are Oates’ greatest strengths imbue the volume with compulsive readability.
One of this indefatigable author’s best books in some time.