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Book Review

The monsters beside us

Oates’s everyday terrors haunt

By Clea Simon
January 12, 2011

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Horror begins at home. That’s the message saturating each of the 10 stories in Joyce Carol Oates’s new collection, “Give Me Your Heart.’’ Although this collection is subtitled “Tales of Mystery and Suspense,’’ there is little whodunit about it. Instead, in waves of growing creepiness, minuscule acts of violence add up. Madness takes the most ordinary of people, and unforgivable crimes are committed.

What makes these stories truly haunting is their domestic nature. There are no monsters here, at least none that do not come home for dinner. In Oates’s world, a long-suffering wife lashes out at her disabled stepson in “The Spill.’’ A middle-aged man stalks his longtime wife’s ex-spouse in “The First Husband.’’ And an elderly academic receives a strange and threatening letter from a long-ago lover in the title story. There is little that is out of the ordinary here, and yet in each story everyday cruelties pile up to create tragedy, as if Oates were measuring the tipping point of madness.

Written largely in first person, these stories don’t give up their secrets easily. Narrators who are too involved in their tales to be trusted lead the reader down seemingly logical paths. Written in the author’s classic, clear style, these narratives enchant — it is easy to believe each new protagonist who comes along. Only when it is too late can the reader see the slight flaw in the logic, the crazy skew of the reasoning — and the macabre conclusion that has been reached step by meticulous step. In “Split/Brain,’’ for example, a woman burdened by her husband’s chronic decline sees, for a moment, a worse crisis — and then acts more on her emotions than her thoughts. In “Bleeed,’’ a “trustworthy boy and an honor student’’ is questioned about an attack on an underage girl and the murder, years before, of a child. “Hadn’t known the girl. He had not,’’ begins the boy’s story. He only wanted to help. Or so we are led to believe.

Despite such occasional male protagonists, Oates’s fascination throughout this collection is with girls on the brink of sexual maturity. Flirting with desire, but not fully aware, these adolescents are again and again thrown up against the violence of male lust. Sometimes, they even escape. In the sharpest — and perhaps most heartening — story in the bunch, “Strip Poker,’’ the 13-year-old Annislee finds herself in a tight spot: drunk, alone in a lake cabin with a bunch of older, predatory boys. She was foolish enough to want a boat trip with the rich summer visitors, and young enough not to guess at their motive until it appears to be too late. But just as she seems about to be molested by the rich boys, who don’t care about a local girl and have misjudged her age, she rallies. Despite her inexperience, she outwits them in a brave turn that will have readers cheering.

Often, though, the young women are not so lucky, and when they survive, they recur in Oates’s stories as the bitter single mothers or wives of 30 years later. By then, they’ve absorbed the world’s evil, and are programmed to play it back — as when that long-ago abandoned lover of the title story makes her appeal, or in “Smother,’’ when a mother’s memories conflict with those of her disturbed, drug-addicted daughter, each hinting at a terrible truth. By the time these characters reach middle age, they have lost any innocence they once had. In fact, almost all the characters in these stories may be characterized as victims. Certainly, nobody — including the reader — escapes unscathed.

Clea Simon, author of six mysteries, most recently “Grey Matters,’’ can be reached at cleas@earthlink.net.

GIVE ME YOUR HEART: Tales of Mystery and Suspense

By Joyce Carol Oates

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 260 pp., $25