Oates's latest collection explores certain favorite Oatesian themes, primary among them violence, loss, and privilege. Three of the stories feature white, upper-class, educated widows whose sheltered married lives have left them unprepared for life alone. In «Pumpkin-Head» and «Sourland», the widows-Hadley in the first story, Sophie in the second-encounter a class of Oatesian male: predatory, needy lurkers just out of prosperity's reach. In the first story, our lurker is Anton Kruppe, a Central European immigrant and vague acquaintance of Hadley whose frustrations boil over in a disastrous way. In the second story, Sophie is contacted by Jeremiah, an old friend of her late husband, and eventually visits him in middle-of-nowhere northern Minnesota, where she discovers, too late, his true intentions. The third widow story, «Probate», concerns Adrienne Myer's surreal visit to the courthouse to register her late husband's will, but Oates has other plans for Adrienne, who is soon lost in a warped bureaucratic funhouse worthy of Kafka. Oates's fiction has the curious, morbid draw of a flaming car wreck. It's a testament to Oates's talent that she can nearly always force the reader to look.
In 1936 the Schwarts, an immigrant family desperate to escape Nazi Germany, settle in a small town in upstate New York, where the father, a former high school teacher, is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. After local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty result in unspeakable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca, begins her astonishing pilgrimage into America, an odyssey of erotic risk and imaginative daring, ingenious self-invention, and, in the end, a bittersweet-but very "American"-triumph. "You are born here, they will not hurt you"-so the gravedigger has predicted for his daughter, which will turn out to be true.
In The Gravedigger's Daughter, Oates has created a masterpiece of domestic yet mythic realism, at once emotionally engaging and intellectually provocative: an intimately observed testimony to the resilience of the individual to set beside such predecessors as The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys.
In her bewitching 30th novel, I'll Take You There, Joyce Carol Oates returns again to neurotic female post-adolescence. The unnamed narrator attends an upstate New York university in the early 1960s. In those times of tightly prescribed femininity, she joins a sorority in a bald attempt to become part of the sisterhood of normalcy. It doesn't work. She reads philosophy, she works for a living, she's asexual, she's an orphan, she's a Jew: "I was a freak in the midst of their stunning, stampeding, blazing female normality." Booted from the sorority, she falls hard for a thirtyish black philosophy student who seems to her to live on a higher plane than the rest of humanity. In the final section, she is called west to the deathbed of someone she thought was lost to her forever. Oates brings together some of her strongest trademark qualities: She writes her character's life as though it were a fairy tale. She sells her material, bringing dramatic tension to the very first page: "They would claim I destroyed Mrs. Thayer… Yet others would claim that Mrs. Thayer destroyed me." And she writes with tender care about the intellectual life of her young protagonist. Some find Oates's obsession with nascent womanhood claustrophobic, but in this heroine she finds a vein of integrity and intellectual probity peculiar to those who are not quite adult. Most writers treat college life as comedy or romance. Oates, on the other hand, seriously explores an age when we are most terribly ourselves. She seems to find something deeply human and pleasingly dramatic in this time wedged between childhood and adulthood.