The prolific short-story scribe

Oates's compilation of stories reflects the violence and loss present in so much of her fiction.

joyce carol oates 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
joyce carol oates 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006 By Joyce Carol Oates Ecco 678pp., $34.95 With each passing year, Joyce Carol Oates's literary production begins to resemble a seismic event - a mountain range thrust up from the mysterious below. Nearly 100 books in four decades, and she is nowhere near stopping. The latest peak in Oates's ever expanding oeuvre is High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006. In a perfect world, this big, lavish collection will do for Oates what similar volumes did for Katherine Anne Porter and John Cheever. Both of these writers were known (and awarded) in their time for being novelists - but they were really short story scribes. And so is Oates. The thin, quick air of the short story has always borne the weight of her themes most steadily. Her pell-mell prose can speed on toward devastating, bloody conclusions and leave us gasping in the wake. Violence and loss have been her themes all along, and the new work collected in High Lonesome reflects this. "Spider Boy" introduces an adolescent who knows his father is doing something spooky with hitchhikers. In "The Fish Factory," a man and woman mourn the disappearance of their teenage daughter, whose corpse is briefly spotted splay-legged in a tangle of weeds. Then it, too, disappears. In Oates's vision, American life is shot through with a primal agoraphobia, something we attempt to tame and name by domesticating the landscape and calling it the suburbs. When that fails, this instinct for control turns on the female body. Time and again in this book women are smacked, abused, threatened or bullied - or simply wind up dead. In "Tryst," a middle-aged executive feeling the yaw of mortality plays fast and loose with a young girl's heart. She responds by slitting her wrists in his luxurious bathroom, splattering blood on his wife's terrycloth towels. High Lonesome holds a mirror to our culture and in Oates's view, it's always Halloween night. The violence that occurs in her fiction is ritualized, a purging of her characters' innermost expectations. Oates can pull this off because she has the tricks of a horror novelist in her tool box. She can warp the fabric of reality without marring its weave. If there's a gun in the opening paragraph, you can be sure it will wind up in a character's hand by the story's finale, as it does in "Last Days." But these are not genre stories. Oates lays those trip wires when she steps out in full genre drag, with books like Rape: A Love Story, and The Female of the Species. This book collects the broadest range of her work, stories about adolescence ("Life after High School" and "Heat") and social life ("The Wall"). In these stories and others, Oates shows herself to be a dazzling descriptive writer. One woman's head "was like a large piece of crockery that had to be held still, it was so heavy." Life moves fast in Oates's world, and regrets pile up like winter firewood. "Fat Man My Love" imagines a film star looking back on her time working with Alfred Hitchcock. In "My Warszawa: 1980," an American writer visiting Poland connects so closely with the town that her entire sense of self begins to erode. Here is where Oates, the genre slummer, and Oates, the high art practitioner, meet. The pleasure of smashing up everything and starting anew is a deeply American instinct. Only in Oates's fiction it turns into a kind of death wish that fills our unconscious with fiery nightmares - or fantasies. Sometimes these dreams come to life. Most of the time, however, they simply lie below the surface of things, sending tremors of danger into the everyday. "The plane taxis along the runway," concludes one story. "Judith grips her lover's hand for comfort, for strength, thinking as always at such moments, 'The plane crashed within seconds of takeoff, killing all passengers and crew, but nothing happens, nothing has ever happened, the plane simply rises, riding the air.'" The writer is president of the National Book Critics Circle.