A hybrid, somewhere between (her pseudonym) Rosamond Smith’s suspense thrillers and the melodramatic clashes of opposites in earlier works like Wonderland (1971) and American Appetites (1989).
Oates’s gazillionth novel, if anyone’s still counting, focuses initially on Joshua Seigl, a former novelist and classics scholar approaching 40, living in self-imposed solitude in the upstate New York college town of Carmel Heights. Unable to find a suitable male research assistant, he impulsively hires Alma Busch, the eponymous beauty who also bears a “disfiguring” facial tattoo, as well as a resentful vagrant and criminal past dating back to her upbringing among the semiliterate, bigoted working-class poor of the Akron Valley, where coal mine fires burning ceaselessly underground symbolize Alma’s own buried emotions. A potentially fascinating dynamic unites white-trash Alma with Seigl, absorbed in his translation of the Aeneid and in hypochondriacal obsession with an undiagnosed “nervous disorder.” Alas, Oates also introduces Alma’s brutal lover and pimp, café waiter and college dropout Dmitri Meatte, a scheming underachiever who encourages Alma to ingratiate herself with “the Jew” and bleed him of his wealth. Dmitri is a cartoon, but less unbelievable than Seigl’s older sister, named (with equal improbability) Jet. This “homegrown Cassandra” obtrudes herself into Joshua’s life (irrationality incarnate, threatening his scholarly monkishness), appears to have been defused, then rises again, to precipitate the lurid, explosive finale. Oates is onto something with the bruised, malleable figure of Alma (whose emotional vacillations are very real indeed), and Joshua Seigl’s own fluctuations between scholarly integrity and a consuming temperamental weakness make him one of Oates’s most interesting recent characters. But The Tattooed Girl is flawed by the insistent presences of Jet and Dmitri, who have nothing like its principals’ realness.
Better-than-average Oates, all the same.