Typically overstuffed chronicle of sexual violence and family implosion, closest in kinship within the author’s family of novels to We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) and You Must Remember This (1987).
En route to challenging Balzac’s lifetime stats, Oates is now somewhere in Trollope territory—Barbara Cartland is of course unapproachable—with her 36th novel and third book-length fiction published in 2009. She divides this one between the narrative of Krista Diehl, passionately adoring daughter of Eddie, a known adulterer and suspected murderer, and the story of Aaron Kruller, the part-Native American son of the murdered woman. Zoe Kruller, Eddie’s mistress before he was accused of killing her, was a seductive, reputedly round-heeled waitress and aspiring band singer; the title alludes to a gritty country-and-western ballad. Oates succeeds best when depicting downbeat real life and sentimental dreams of something better in the fictional upstate hamlet of Sparta, N.Y. But boastful, hair-trigger-tempered Eddie, his spiteful, betrayed wife Lucille and Krista’s sullen older brother Ben are all recycled from earlier books, and Krista’s emotional defense of her doting daddy is as devoid of conviction or resonance as it is creepy. When Oates shifts to Aaron’s story, however, the book starts to fly. The misshapen product of unconscionable parenting and a racist environment, Aaron seethes with an I’ll-get-those-bastards fury that all but burns holes in the pages. This small-town Caliban, a hound of hell powered by unquenchable rage and vindictiveness, is one of Oates’s most unforgettable characters. If only Krista’s bloated narrative had had one-tenth the concentrated heat of Aaron’s seemingly foreordained decline and fall.
One-half of a masterpiece.