Joyce Carol Oates is in a class all by herself. She defies characterization, combining a singular literary style with an insight into the human condition that is often painful to behold yet demands to be read. BLACK DAHLIA & WHITE ROSE is the latest collection of Oates’ short fiction, consisting of 11 stories drawn from a wide range of sources --- periodicals ranging from Harper’s and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to Playboy and Boulevard, as well as short story anthologies New Jersey Noir --- which constitute a considerable sample of the width and breadth of her immeasurable talent.
"While any number of her peers have retired or demonstrated a diminution of the quality and/or quantity of their work, Oates has not exhibited the same; some of her best work to date is contained within these pages. Notwithstanding the darkness that resides within the stories, each and all demand to be read."
The stories are grouped into four sections. Though there are no headings other than a simple roman numeral --- I, II, III and IV --- to separate one grouping from another, the stories under each grouping are loosely related by topic. The lone entry under Section I is the title story; its topic, as one might guess from the title, is one of the most puzzling and enduring murder mysteries of the last century. The murder of Elizabeth Short, dubbed “Black Dahlia” by the media, is examined from the viewpoint of several of the principals, including, interestingly enough, Marilyn Monroe and, from beyond the grave, Short herself. While Oates offers some subtle conjecture as to the identity of the murderer, the primary focus of this story is that of Short’s relationship with her father, as well as an imaginative friendship between Monroe and Short, who shared a desire for fame and fortune that ultimately contributed to their respective ends in very different ways.
Section II consists of five of the collection’s 11 stories and examines the fracturing of the relationship between children and parents, surrogate, absentee, and present but not accounted for. While each of the stories are unsettling in their unique and respective ways, the tales one encounters in this section, particularly “I.D.” and “The Good Samaritan,” are the most so.
In “I.D.,” Lisette Mueller is a middle school student in Atlantic City, New Jersey, whose mother, Yvette, is a casino worker who changes jobs and relationships with equal rapidity. Yvette’s absence of several days dovetails with Lisette being taken out of class to identify a body that may or may not be the earthly remains of her mother. The suspense, which is ratcheted up sentence by sentence, is excruciating; it is the after-the -fact ending, however, that provides a final and deft chill.
“The Good Samaritan” presents an impoverished student on a commuter train who finds a woman’s lost wallet. She attempts to return it to the rightful owner, but finds herself in the aftermath of an unfortunate domestic situation. Or perhaps it is more than that. Or not. One of the characteristics of Oates’ work, especially here, is that not all is revealed in every case. So it is that “The Good Samaritan” may tell the reader much, but not all. It is perhaps the most enigmatic story in the collection.
Section III consists of three stories that, in somewhat different ways, concern women who are perhaps trapped by circumstance or choice, or a combination of both. The most striking of these is “Spotted Hyenas: A Romance.” A former biology graduate student, married for almost two decades to an attorney, initiates an opportunity to kindle a romantic relationship with her former professor, now a renowned animal researcher. The story goes far beyond a “will they or won’t they” scenario, with memorable and disturbing imagery that is hypnotically symbolic on several levels and whose enigmatic ending blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.
It is Section IV, however, that contains what is arguably the book’s best story. “Anniversary,” which closes the collection, is one of Section IV’s three stories, all of which deal with prison as both a reality and a metaphor. Vivianne is a highly-respected educator who is assisting an optimistic activist in an inmate teaching program. It is not simply a matter of going into a classroom, tutoring a group of inmates seeking self-improvement, and leaving; there is a set of rules that must be strictly observed, with disastrous consequences for non-compliance. It is clear from the beginning that things will go wrong; how badly is the only unresolved issue. It is a story that any reader is unlikely to forget, a puzzle that may not have an answer.
Oates is completing her fifth decade of writing. While any number of her peers have retired or demonstrated a diminution of the quality and/or quantity of their work, Oates has not exhibited the same; some of her best work to date is contained within these pages. Notwithstanding the darkness that resides within the stories, each and all demand to be read.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 14, 2012