High Crime Area: Tales of Darkness and Dread
Joyce Carol Oates’s latest short story collection, HIGH CRIME AREA, is subtitled “Tales of Darkness and Dread,” and, indeed, there is much darkness and dread in these pages. The eight stories, a couple of them quite short, bring readers to places and moments where characters are found facing fear or horror but are left without context or resolution. The result is Oates’s particular brand of literary anxiety compressed into less than tidy packages. HIGH CRIME AREA is scary, brooding and entertaining.
"Horrific and creepy, HIGH CRIME AREA still manages to smartly critique American society and its uneasy feelings on race, sexuality, gender, academia and family dynamics."
The title story, the final one in the collection, finds a young white professor confronting her own ideas about race and safety while teaching in Detroit in the spring of 1967. The walk from her night class to the campus parking garage is fraught with peril, not in the least because of the illegally purchased handgun she has in her purse to protect her from her students. When a former student insists on walking with her, she must try to decipher his intentions and her own. A strange woman hunts for a man to love her in New York City in “Lorelei.” A twisted version of the siren in Heine’s famous poem, she is a beautiful and desperate creature who, like her namesake, meets a sudden and gruesome end. In contrast to the young women in those two stories, Agnes is an older woman grieving the loss of her husband. In “High,” she medicates herself by starting a marijuana habit that eventually has her seeking out the dangerously attractive man she once taught in a prison English class.
In “The Rescuer,” a young graduate student reluctantly goes to help her brother, Harvey, who has recently dropped out of his own studies. She finds him living in a Trenton, New Jersey slum, sick, possibly strung out, and obsessing over language and religion. His only companions are a group of rough dealers who Lydia finds herself strangely drawn to, even as they continue to abuse her brother and begin abusing her as well. Her own fears and weaknesses are exposed as she, too, abandons her college work and leaves safety and security behind to live with Harvey, becoming complicit in the crimes and danger around her.
While a few main characters are male, like many other stories by Oates, female vulnerability and anxiety are at the core of these tales. In “The Last Man of Letters,” four women who are presumed by a famous author to be incompetent sexual objects exact revenge, destroying him in the most ironic of ways. Still, many of the female characters succumb to their fears and darkest thoughts. The despair is palpable and the tension always high in these stories told in a combination of hyper-realism and emotionally charged suspense.
Horrific and creepy, HIGH CRIME AREA still manages to smartly critique American society and its uneasy feelings on race, sexuality, gender, academia and family dynamics.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 20, 2014