From Oates (Carthage, 2014, etc.) comes this collection of eight stories, seven previously published, that explore the depths of human despair and cruelty.
A retired nun is found dead with a muslin veil over her face in “The Home at Craigmillnar.” Although the nun was a cardiac patient, the orderly who reports her death knows enough about her dark past to suggest that she might have died from something other than natural causes. In “High,” a lonely widow seeks escape from her grief even as she opens herself up to exploitation by those she once tried to help. A 13-year-old girl has to protect her half brother from an indifferent world and their alcoholic mother in “Toad-Baby.” “Lorelei” is a needy woman who searches the subways for love and hopes that people will notice her. In “Demon,” a mentally challenged youth goes to extremes to eliminate the sign of the devil in his own body. The would-be heroine of “The Rescuer” is a cultural anthropologist who leaves her ivory tower to save her brother from a terrifying local culture and is slowly pulled into it. “The Last Man of Letters” is an arrogant author who thinks he’s receiving the adulation he deserves until he realizes how much he’s hated. Finally, an idealistic young teacher in 1967 Detroit has to face the fears that are personified by the man following her in “High Crime Area.” Oates is at her best here when she’s writing about floundering academics thrust into situations for which they’re hopelessly ill-prepared.
Oates’ mastery of imagery and stream of consciousness enhances the gritty settings and the frailties of her grotesque and pitiable subjects.