Review

High Lonesome: Selected Stories 1966 -2006

by Joyce Carol Oates



HIGH LONESOME, the latest collection of short fiction by Joyce
Carol Oates, is also the most extensive. Work is amassed from over
four decades of her career and includes 11 new stories, all of
which exhibit her razor-sharp ability of cutting straight to the
heart of the middle class. Her familiar themes of innocence lost,
violence unchecked (usually against women), and the seamy
underbelly of suburbia abound throughout.

After four decades of writing, Oates is far from past her prime,
her new stories resonant with her recurring motifs. In "Spider Boy"
a teenage son is used for bait by his powerful politician father as
he trolls for young men. Normally her work demonstrates violence
against women, but in this story the politician is exploiting (and
quite possibly murdering) his young male prey. The young son must
decide how much to divulge to the police, resulting in a powerful
--- albeit horrific --- morality play that could have been ripped
from today's headlines.

In "The Fish Factory" we see the disintegration of a couple's
marriage after tragedy strikes. Narrated by the heartbroken wife,
the story begins after the body of her teenage daughter has been
discovered behind a dilapidated factory: "Seeing my daughter
discarded like trash behind the fish factory where on even the
breeziest days a faint stink of fish prevails." "The Gathering
Squall" depicts the violent aftermath of a high school girl being
violated and humiliated by a group of high school boys, similar
territory to Oates's bestselling WE WERE THE MULVANEYS.

The title story opens with the fateful words, "The only people I
still love are the ones I've hurt." Daryl McCracken looks back at
his life spent on his step-grandfather's farm, a man they called
"Pop," who played the banjo "making this high old lonesome sound
like a ghost tramping the hills." When his disoriented grandfather
is arrested for soliciting a prostitute, Daryl is stunned and
saddened that his cousin Drake, a Sheriff's Deputy, did not
intervene to help the old man, and he decides to seek his own form
of retribution.

"B*D* 11 1 87" is an intriguingly eerie entry about organ donors
who are bred for harvesting, although they aren't aware of this
fact until it's too late. The narrator is a high school senior who
wonders why his teachers and counselors aren't recommending him for
college. In addition to highlighting the evil inherent in society
that exists today, Oates shines a light on the evils yet to
come.

Even after many years, her earlier works stand the test of time.
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" arguably one of her
most well-known short pieces (and the basis for the film, Smooth
Talk
), tells the story of a restless teen named Connie who
meets her match in the charismatically menacing drifter Arnold
Friend. Was it rape or seduction --- or perhaps a little bit of
both? In "The Swimmers," a young girl recalls the mysterious woman
who dated her uncle --- a woman who kept many secrets. In true
Oates fashion, the story is imbued with her trademark longing and
dread.

The most difficult part of compiling collections such as these is
which stories to include and which to leave out, especially when
trying to cull from such an extensive career. Oates addresses this
issue in her afterword, as she explains how she tried to stick
mostly to stories that were featured in collections that were no
longer in print.

HIGH LONESOME is a treasure trove for Joyce Carol Oates fans and a
gift for first-time readers. Publishers Weekly has said that
"much is made of her prodigious output…(but) it's the
consistent quality of the work that lifts Oates into the literary
pantheon."

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 22, 2011

High Lonesome: Selected Stories 1966 -2006
by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0060501197
  • ISBN-13: 9780060501198