Death a Country of Crooner

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By Joyce CaroiOates Ecco.4!2 pp"$25.99 By Mrcnitr. LrNocnnx Special TheWashington to Post

ith "Little Bird of Heaven," III JoyceCarol Oatesreturns W UU again to depictions of life in Sparta,N.Y., "the doomedcity on the Black River." In this latest offering, the fadingblue-collar burg hasbeen rocked by the grisly murder of one Zoe Kruller, a troubled but charismatic country singer with a taste for seedy pleasures. Z,oe was found beatenand strangled in her bed in a rundown apartment on the wrong side oftown. Estranged from her husband,she had beenliving in squalid semi-prostitution, and ihe feeling amongthe shabby.genteel townspeople,who are a little too close to Zoe'smilieu for empathyor. compassion" that she somehowgot is what shedeserved. The police investigatingthe crime are certain she died at the handsof her lover or her ex-husband. When the investigation stalls over lack of evidence,however, the murder remainsunsolved, effectively qastingthe families of those involygd into anendlesspurgalory of susplclon. The fallout from the unhappy. woman'sdemisefalls largely on the shouldersofAaron, her anomic son, and Krisla Diehl, the daughter of the local roustaboutwith whom Zoewas having an affair. Both children believe that the other's father is responsible for the murder, setting up

crosscurrentsof sin and stain that reverberatethroughout the narrative, which jumps back and forth acrossthe passage two decades the lives of of in thesedeath-haunted characters. This is a powerfirl novel. Oates's feel for the rhythms of hardscrabble life and its sour mix of alcoholism. suicide,drug abuse, adulteryand murder is as keenas ever.In Sparta she has createda fictional uiriverseto standbesideFaulkner's )foknapatawpha County or Cheever's ShadyHill. ltrer descriptionsofthe geographyof urban decay- the

and stasismay be realistic, but it will frustrate readerswith more conventionalexpectations. By now, however,most readers probably havesettled ideasaboul Oatesanyway,and "Little Bird of Heaven"is unlikely to changeany minds. Despite her long and prestigious career,in certain circles she suffersfrom tlte perceptionthat her superheated realism is not sufficiently literary oqexperimental. There are three reasonsfor this canard: The first is the staggeringvolume of

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Oates shows againthat herfeelfor itssourmix of alcoholism, suicide, drugabnse, adultery murder and is
as keen0s euen
Oates'soutput. While someof her work can feel either rushedor recycled,it is worth noting that James, Thackeray Dickensand Tiollope,.to namea few, producedan equivalent amount of fiction. But critics, especiallymale ones,are in love with the idea of the author as heroic artiste, a reclusivemystic whosetriumphal verbal artifacts are the product of a decadeor more of tortured cogitation. This is a purely 2fth-century invention. The idea that writing is a cr#t, that it i5 work and, like baking or washing dishesor paintirtg houseS,

therlrythms hardsrabble and of ffi



rusted bridges,tangledback alleysand trash-strewnlots - are asvivid as any naturalist's portrayal of more felicitous scenes. Her unsentimentallanguage makesa high-lonesome kind of poetry out of otherwise sordid and unremarkablecircumstance. . This is not to saythat "Little Bird of Heaven"is without flaws; its paCingis,: shall we say,stately,and at times the author lingers over descriptive passages that could havebeen dispatchedmore crisply. A book that starts out as a standardpolice proceduralbut ftzzlesnto uncertainty

canbe done daily and well, is anathemato the hoary "great man" theoryof literature. The secondreasonfor the disdain Oatessometimesprovokesis that she postmodernism eschews gamesmanship, it is difficult to and think of a writer lessburdenedwith irony - the kudzu vine of contemporaryfiction. Fashionaside, novelslike "Little Bird of Heaven.'l with its mixture of the Gothic and the fatalistic, mark Oatesas our closest contemporaryanalogue Hawthorne: to lyrical, moral, unforgiving. And finally, there's the poverty, economicand intellectual, of Oates's subjects.Like everyoneelse,literary critics enjoy reading about characters who resemblethemselves, Oatesrs but narratives are markedlyfree of eccentricacademics, hipster smart-alecks and entry-level publishing ingenues.For Rayrnond Carver or CormacMcCarthy to write scenes with unshavencharactefs drinking from the bottle in boardinghouse rooms with stained and fadedfloral wallpaperregisters as noble and bitter and true. To do so as a woman,as a spiritual descendant of Austen and Woolf and Wharton. however,looks to the inflexible-mindedas slightly out of focus,as though shewereslumming or trying to be somethingshe'snot. But Oates'srefusal to write soggyfamily sagasor dating-life confessionals its is own form of toughness.What else would you expecther to do?She'sthe original Girl From the North Country. Lindgren is a musician and.poet who diaid.eshis tirne bietween New Yorh Citg and Pennsgluania.

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