Like Henry James perversely trying to make a second career by conquering the London stage, Joyce Carol Oates seems bent on devoting part of her prodigious gifts to pseudonymous neo-gothic thrillers like this latest.
Twenty-one years after the murder and mutilation of high-school student Marcey Mason from his South Jersey hometown, and less than a week after the disappearance of graphic artist Duana Zwolle from the posh central Jersey community where he’s settled, the cops come calling on rising realtor Matt McBride. Under their probing questions, he admits that he had indeed known the missing woman, but he doesn’t admit that he’d taken a series of photographs of her house, or that he’d just had a nightmare about the earlier victim. Although Matt writhes so desperately under official pressure that he seems a good bet to be the killer, it’s clear early on that Duana and Marcey (and, as it turns out, quite a few others) have been murdered by welder Joseph Gavin, who signs both his sculptures and his victims NAME UNKNOWN. Terrified that he’s losing control of the good life he’s taken for granted and haunted by Smith’s incantatory prose (“People always know more than they think they know” is perhaps the most resonant of several mantras here), Matt launches his own search for Duana’s killer and plunges into a thicket of Smith’s trademark twins. Duana herself turns out to have a biological twin that anchors her doubling with her friend Oriana, a potter and painter Matt is unhealthily drawn toward; Matt serves as his own double (he signs his photos “Nighthawk”); and he’s eventually paired with the creepy, if never exactly memorable, NAME UNKNOWN.
Not the best or worst of the overheated, essentially routine thrillers (Starr Bright Will Be with You Soon, 1999, etc.) signed by the author’s own double, but a puzzling waste of Oates’s talent.