Oates’s latest, which examines the aftershocks of a suburban murder, is an uneasy cross between her literary fiction and her pseudonymous “Rosamond Smith” mystery thrillers.
It begins on Mother’s Day, when narrator Nikki Eaton attends a party for her widowed mother, Gwen, and, as usual, blends in awkwardly, offending the sensibilities of her married older sister Clare, as well as her mother’s assorted friends (who are, effectively, beneficiaries of Gwen’s unquenchable good will). Things spin quickly out of control when Gwen is robbed and murdered by wretched “meth-head” ex-convict Ward Lynch, and the quiet neighborhood (in upstate Mt. Ephraim, NY) where she had lived for 30 years tries to cope with the ensuing emotional fallout. Sticking strictly to Nikki’s viewpoint, Oates portrays her narrator as a free-spirited (possibly just borderline-trashy?) babe who works as a feature-writer for a regional weekly newspaper, sustains a ragged affair with married developer and radio deejay Wally Szalla (who may or may not divorce his wife), and grieves awkwardly for her mother, while waiting to learn whether Lynch will plead guilty or stand trial, and deflecting the hesitant attentions of a police detective whose interest in her seems less than professional. The novel consists of bulky setpieces in which Nikki discusses her Gwen with the cartoonishly intemperate Clare, people who remember Gwen’s vibrant youth and probably loveless marriage to a cold-fish husband, and, finally, the former boyfriend who abandoned Gwen to enter the priesthood. Add in flashbacks to Nikki’s childhood and early adulthood, and the novel becomes irrationally bloated; on virtually every page, we sense Oates’s desperation to extend this banal premise, overwriting, incessantly over-detailing. The only halfway credible character is Gwen’s surly tomcat Smoky—probably because we aren’t made privy to his thoughts.
After last year’s triumph The Falls, Oates gives us this? Get this woman an editor.