Although these stories scrape the surface of many politically correct themes in modern society— violence against women, midlife crisis, child abuse, and the breakup of the traditional family—they seem to spring less from the real world of experience than from the writer’s imaginative “what if.” What if a woman were attacked and stripped of her clothes while hiking one morning? What if a woman tried to save a wounded deer and it trapped her under its own dead body?
In spite of the ragged edge of sexuality and violence that seems to rip through these stories, there is a kind of prim predictability about the short fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. In the title story for example, two identical twin girls are murdered by a mentally ill young man, but the piece seems to spring from the symbolic possibilities of the situation rather than from any real mystery about the nature of violence. As is usual with Oates, these stories provide ample evidence that regardless of whether she knows a great deal about the uncanny world of demonic desire she writes about, she knows volumes about the writer’s craft; her stories derive more from the literature she has read than the life she has lived. Indeed, Oates has read so much and written so much that she may have finally have run out of storytellers to emulate, for a number of these stories give rise to each other. For example, the story “White Trash” follows inevitably upon “Death Valley,” which in turn follows hard upon “Craps”—as one situation provides the germ for the next.
Too many of these stories are aesthetically astute but emotionally cold, resonant with the influence of literature but empty of the mystery of life—in short, in spite of the book’s title, a lot of smoke, but precious little heat.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXVII, June 1, 1991, p. 1843.
Boston Globe. August 4, 1991, p. 15.
Chicago Tribune. August 4, 1991, XIV, p. 3.
The Christian Science Monitor. August 20, 1991, p. 14.
Houston Post. September 15, 1991, p. C4.
Library Journal. CXVI, July, 1991, p. 137.
Los Angeles Times. September 27, 1991, p. E4.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, August 4, 1991, p. 5.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, July 5, 1991, p. 55.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, August 25, 1991, p. 4.