Oates’s fat new opus (her 29th full-length novel, if anyone is still counting) traces the effects of an inscrutable sculptor’s benign personality and aura on a townful of admirers who find their lives permanently altered by the memory of him.
Adam Berendt, the mystery man of the prosperous upstate New York village of Salthill-on-Hudson, suffers fatal cardiac arrest while attempting to save a drowning child. The several (mostly married) women who had adored his playful, provocative intellect and perversely attractive physical ugliness (including one blind eye) react variously to the loss of their social circle’s very own Socrates (for Oates makes it explicit: even giving Adam a faithful dog named Apollodoros, after the real Socrates’s dutiful young companion). Neurasthenic divorcée Abigail Des Pres works through a borderline-incestuous fixation on her surly teenaged son. Thirtyish bookstore owner Marina Troy becomes the surprised beneficiary of Adam’s whimsical largesse. Adam’s attorney Roger Cavanagh battles his embittered ex-wife and accusatory adolescent daughter, while enduring sexual fixations on both the unresponsive Marina (who soon moves away) and a feisty feminist paralegal. Timid Camille Hoffmann soothes her loneliness by “mothering” a brood of abandoned canines (including, of course, “Apollo”), and Rubens-like beauty Augusta Cutler (the Shelley Winters part) travels the country deciphering the mystery of Adam’s past. As in Oates’s Broke Heart Blues (1999), the oracle proves something less than his acolytes had imagined. Still, all ends more or less affirmatively (this being a “romance”); there’s even a climactic reconciliation in a fabricated Garden of Eden. Middle Age has its moments, but it’s basically redundant and shapeless (Oates is still introducing new material barely ten pages prior to its end), and very heavily indebted to Plato’s numerous portrayals of Socrates (caves and shadows loom up frequently), several Iris Murdoch novels (Revered Charismatic Figure Shapes Lives of Those Who Loved Him), and especially John Updike’s Couples (Salthill=Tarbox?; and the concluding chapters contain multiple echoes of Couples’s denouement).
It’s better than Blonde (2000). But that’s a little like saying that Plato’s Timaeus goes down easier than the Parmenides.