More of (mostly) the same in Oates’s latest collection of 16 in-your-face short stories.
Faithful readers will note the familiar mixture of vividly conceived psychodramas redeemed by raw intensity and immediacy, and clichéd depictions of vulnerable and victimized souls dominated by overdrawn avatars of ego and appetite. The latter include a clenched account of a suburban mom’s joyless dalliance with an unfeeling, abusive lover (“Babysitter”); a recent widow’s predictable Kafkaesque entrapment in the coils of the legal system (“Probate”); and the seemingly endless tale of an uprooted family destined to make ruinously wrong decisions, notably its “sensitive” daughter’s attraction to the romantic sociopathy of her sullen male cousin (“Honor Code”). When not idling along at her worst, Oates shows flashes of the gritty hyperbolic lucidity that can make her stories rattle around in your head for days after you’ve read them. She manages credible and moving empathy in relating the experiences of another recent widow hopelessly drawn to a creepy admirer (“Pumpkin-Head”); a former gang member hoping against hope to become a responsible adult (“Bounty Hunter”); a boy desperate to make any sacrifice that might enable his ailing hospital-bound father to recover (“The Barter”); and an alienated teenager (“Bitch”) seduced almost magically back into caring for her moribund father. Even the better of these stories are blemished by contrivance and shrillness, as is even the volume’s rightful centerpiece, its title story, in which a woman still yearning for her recently deceased husband accepts an invitation to visit the latter’s sinister old acquaintance—a recluse who refers cryptically to himself as a “pilgrim in perpetual quest.” In fact he is, as explicit symbolism makes clear, her immediate future and destiny. Despite its forced awkwardness, this is one of the author’s strongest and most haunting stories in years.
Oates being Oates. Let the reader beware.