What lurks in the woods is creepy and scary, but Oates ventures in deep and reports back in this collection of stories dealing with themes of mortality.
The prolific Oates (Carthage, 2014, etc.) returns to short stories with this collection of 13 tales examining the reactions of humans confronting the final baby boomer frontier—death. Oates’ characters—including an assortment of deteriorating “great men,” isolated, lonely, middle-aged women, and couples on the downslide—encounter harbingers of their eventual fates with every canker sore, abortion, scab and biopsy. Elusive neighbors, living beyond an area of unexplored boundary woods, haunt the lives of aging suburbanites in “The Jesters” while a puzzled wife, in “The Disappearing,” mulls over the significance of her husband’s divestiture of his personal possessions. The enervating effects of a brush with death are examined from the points of view of a survivor, in “Mastiff,” and, in a twist on 1950s teenage-car-crash ballads, a victim, in “Forked River Roadside Shrine, South Jersey.” The collection’s titular story delivers a skewering of Robert Frost in its unsympathetic riff on the facts of the poet’s life as well as a testimonial to the role of the poet’s craft as a hedge against mortality. The aging literary lion in “Patricide,” Roland Marks, allows Oates another opportunity to poke at the myth of the “great man” of literature while providing clues as to which man of American letters may have annoyed Oates the most.
As unsympathetic as many of Oates’ mordant and quasi-anonymous characters may appear at first, en masse their fears and anxieties in the face of death and decline epitomize universal recognition of hard facts: We’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive.