Saturday, June 10, 2017

High Lonesome: 40 Years of Stories from Joyce Carol Oates

Photo: from at this link

Better known for her Gothic stories, especially the heavily anthologized "Where Is Here?" and a few others, this is still an extremely readable and often striking collection of short stories spanning 40 years, from 1966 to 2006. As with all collections of this length, and shorter, you may find some swings and misses here, but there are far more hits than misses. At worst, a few stories were okay, unimpressive, but not bad, exactly. Some are stunning. Some are memorable, sometimes for the writing, sometimes for the things that happen. (In one, an unhappy woman in her early 20s allows herself to have a messy, unstopped period while she and her family spoke with a priest at a seminary, where her brother would've been kicked out but for that spectacle.) Other stories are memorable for what they don't show, or say. (In one, a young man kills himself in his car. In the glove compartment is found an object that may insinuate he also would've killed someone else, but for some reason didn't. The story ends with a character asking the other what that object had been for--and the story ends right there.) Anyway, there are 11 new stories here (as of 2006), one of them the title story. This one is also perhaps the best of the bunch--a nice comment to be able to make, considering Joyce Carol Oates has been writing now for over 50 years, and apparently hasn't lost a thing. If anything, she may be getting better. So these are all good, and highly recommended, though I prefer her Gothic stories, none of which are here.

A short bulleted commentary:

--"Spider Boy" is very good. Chilling and short, as usual about the unknown side of someone's personality.

--"The Cousins" is an award-winning story.

--"The Gathering Squall" has a nice metaphor, tying a painting in with the story's theme. I tried Googling the painting, couldn't find it. Possibly invented for the story.

--"The Lost Brother" is a good story about the hopelessness of having hope for a lost soul in your family. And perhaps why you shouldn't.

--"High Lonesome" motivated me to start my own story. The best part of the story--the old, desperate, lonely man getting pinched while only wanting conversation from a hooker who's not a hooker--isn't even the main part.

--"Upon the Sweeping Flood" is good and memorable, and has a recurring image of children suffering at the hands of insane adults.

--"At the Seminary" was referred to above. Not to be missed, if only for the scene I described.

--"Where Are You Going...?" is perhaps the most anthologized story here, one the author says she regrets having to include in this volume because it's so prevalent elsewhere. I have it in the tons of other sweeping anthologies downstairs. However, it continues to impress, even after a great many readings. Sly, slow, charming, disturbing, seductive (not in a sensual sense) evil has perhaps never been captured so well, not even by Hawthorne.

--The collection is broken down into the decades. Stories from "The 1970s" are all good, though representative (except for "Manslaughter") of John Updike. Maybe Cheever, too.

--"The Hair" was a very good, very John Cheever, expose of suburban couples and the illusion of social and marital perfection that one couple holds over the other, until the ending. Reminiscent of reality; been there, done that. Got away just in time.

--"Life After High School" was referred to above. Interesting. The woman in the story reminds me of someone I know.

--"Mark of Satan" was a story I was highly critical of on my blog, a long time ago, for reasons that now escape me. I'd read just the last few stories of the whole collection at the time, and responded in anger about this one. I think I mentioned I thought it was a rip-off, but it's not, and I can't even begin to tell you what the hell my problem was. Anyway, it's okay, not great and not bad.

The title, by the way, is a phrase that means "drunk" or "bender," but which sounds depressive to me as well. This all makes sense, because there's plenty of all three here. Most of the characters and stories inhabit upstate New York, Richard Russo's (Nobody's Fool and Empire) stomping grounds, or New York City, when the stories sound a bit like Updike and Cheever.

And I would love to know her writing schedule. She's so prolific, she makes Stephen King seem like J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee. 

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