Oates' output is truly scary Author: Master of suspense, honored by Pratt Library, has more surprises, and thrills, in store.

November 12, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Running is the way Joyce Carol Oates aerates her imagination, one of the most fertile in America. An hour each day in fall, two hours in summer, she winds through the streets near her house outside Princeton, N.J., opening her mind for new seed.

It must work. Look what Oates is doing this fall:

In October she published a collection of 27 tales of the grotesque. Her article on a fictionalized male writer who mistreats women appears in the current issue of Playboy. On her desk is a proof of the novel she will publish in July. On her mind is an essay on Ernest Hemingway she has been invited to write for the Folio Society edition of his work. In the meantime, this American storyteller is at work on yet another novel. And, yes, she continues to explore new terrain: In September, she published a children's book, her first.

Take a month off, some critics have complained over the years. Can anybody who writes so much be taken seriously, say, considered for a Nobel Prize (though she was nominated once)?

Admirers, though, wonder whether Oates' critics aren't intimidated by her extraordinary level of achievement, the same sort of volume produced before her, Oates notes, by artists such as Picasso, Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, Faulkner.

In the admirers' camp is one of the institutions that houses Oates' books, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where tonight its trustees and benefactors will honor her for a lifetime of literary achievement. It is the Enoch Pratt Society's second such $10,000 award. The first went to novelist Saul Bellow last fall.

At 60, Oates is a haunting presence on the American literary landscape: novelist, playwright, distinguished master of the short story and poet, acclaimed for her mastery of the dark side of life and her gift for developing suspense and terror as a literary art form. Oh, and for the profound emotion she stirs within the souls of readers of her books and spectators of her plays.

"All of her work touches you very deeply emotionally," says Robert Hillman, a Baltimore lawyer who led the Enoch Pratt Society group that selected Oates for its second annual award.

She was 31 when her book "Them," a novel tracing the life of a poor black family before the 1967 race riots, won a National Book Award for fiction in 1970. Since publishing her first novel 34 years ago, Oates has written two major works a year, a record that has received almost equal amounts of praise and criticism.

Some say her most enduring novel may be "Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart," a 1991 work about the bond between a white woman and a black man who murders to protect her.

Oates herself is curious what readers will make of her next novel, "Broke Heart Blues," to be published next summer. They are likely to be surprised -- as she was, she says -- by how loving it is.

"It is the most cheerful of my novels much more benign than any," Oates said one late afternoon last week in a telephone interview. Set at a 30th high school reunion in a town based on Oates' own childhood home, a rural farming community in upstate New York, the novel is about nostalgia in America at the end of the 20th century. "A Valentine to American life in the 1960s and 1970s," Oates calls it. "It ends with the words, 'We Love You.'

"It would have been [a good] ending to my entire career," she says.

Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University, where she has taught since 1987. She leads what she describes as an ordinary life with a husband and a cat and, each semester, about 25 students. She married Raymond J. Smith, a professor of 18th century English, 30 years ago.

On this windy, autumnal day, Oates has just returned from running. She sounds calm. But when she writes, a heart beats wildly inside this lean, sensitive woman, described by those who have met her as graceful and more beautiful than her pictures.

"I feel like lightning yearning to strike," she wrote in a 1995 letter. And strike she does.

It is not necessary that Oates give readers the ghastly details of a death or rape or murder; she creates her terror by positing the idea that ordinary things are not what they seem; that at any moment, we are all perilously close to falling into an abyss.

Her genre is realism, her subjects the conflicts of her generation, be they urban riots, affluent suburbanites or vulnerable women. "I am concerned with only one thing, the moral and social conditions of my generation," Oates once told a Chicago newspaper. To her, the reality of post-war America is more terrifying than any nightmare. Consider "Black Water," a 1992 novella inspired by the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident in which a young woman drowned in a car driven off a bridge by Sen. Edward Kennedy.

The entire story takes place in the mind of Oates' protagonist, Kelly, as she lies trapped underwater in a brown Toyota.

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