Oates story collection explores theme of violence

December 01, 1991|By Michael Boylan


Joyce Carol Oates.


397 pages. $21.95. Joyce Carol Oates is a versatile artist. She writes poems, short stories and novels. Her best form is the short story, and within this form she experiments widely with style and subject matter. Her ability to catch and hold your attention is masterly. Observe these openings:

This is such a terrible story. It's a story I have told a dozen times, never knowing why.

Why I can't forget it, I mean. Why it's lodged so deep in me . . . like an arrow through the neck. (From "The Buck.")

How subtly the season of mourning shaded into a season of envy. (From "House Hunting.")

There are stories that go unaccountably wrong and become impermeable to the imagination. They lodge in the memory like an old wound never entirely healed. (From "The Swimmers.")

It was midsummer, the heat rippling above the macadam roads, cicadas screaming out of the trees, and the sky like pewter, glaring. (From "Heat.")

All of the above selections are from Ms. Oates' new collection, "Heat." Two emphasize wounds and the other pair emphasizes seasons. These themes/motifs/devices are prominent in this collection (as they are in most of her work). At her best, as in "The Buck," the natural imagery combines with a surgical description of violence to yoke parallel themes together effectively.

The story revolves around a hunting incident as the elderly spinster, Melaine Snyder, confronts the man who jilted her years before in the form of a wounded male deer. As in many of Ms. Oates' stories, fate ignites a set of causes already present. The result is a tale that resonates.

"House Hunting" uses the physical environs of various potential abodes as an objective correlative to depict the deterioration of a marriage. The wife is absent from the excursion but is there in spirit. Within the panorama of houses, rooms and furniture, the husband confronts more than empty buildings.

Two less successful stories are "The Swimmers" and the title story, "Heat."

In the former, the metaphor of swimming as making love is featured. But it is forced; it is distracting and unbalances the tale in which a pair of lovers have their relationship destroyed by the accidental intervention of an ex-husband. But is it really fate? Would another pair in the same circumstances act differently? Although the writing is a bit overdrawn, these questions are interesting.

"Heat" is about a grisly murder, a situation so gruesome that it captivates. However, there is a problem with the narrator and the attempt to superimpose the murder sequence upon her own clandestine love affair. The two situations do not juxtapose well. Therefore, instead of reinforcing each other, they stand apart. This does not contribute to the unity of the story.

Much of my reaction to the other stories follows my sketches of the above four (though the "fantastic" final tales fall into a different group). This is a worthwhile collection. There is much ingenuity and competence displayed. Violence and natural imagery are the principal tools of Ms. Oates' trade. When they work well, no one handles them better.

Mr. Boylan is a poet and novelist living in the Washington area.

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