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Friday, June 20, 2008

Wild Nights: Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway

Wild Nights, the latest from Joyce Carol Oates, is a collection of five longish short-stories, each of which fantasizes about the end days of one of America’s best known and most respected writers. As indicated by the book’s complete title, there are stories about Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemmingway, in that order. And strangely enough, at least to me, the stories seem to have been ordered in such a way that each tops the previous one in degree of sadness the reader will feel on behalf of the author being featured.

Edgar Allan Poe, grateful for having been given the job of lighthouse keeper on Vina de Mar and looking forward to the complete isolation promised by his employer, comes to find that sanity is not an easy thing to hold onto when one’s only companion is an independent little dog. Emily Dickinson’s end days, as envisioned by author Oates, come in the twenty-first century, not in the nineteenth, and are bought and paid for by a couple who decide to make their home more intellectually interesting by purchasing a robotic replicate of Dickinson’s talents, emotions, and memories. The very fact that “Dickinson” would face similar end days numerous times in different homes marks the story as an even greater tragedy than the one faced by Poe.


Next comes the story of Sam Clemens, forced to “perform” as the character Mark Twain in order to make a living because his royalties will not sustain his lifestyle any longer, and desperately unhappy since the deaths of his favorite daughter and his wife. His only comfort is the friendships he so desperately seeks with little girls between the ages of ten and fifteen, something that drives his daughter Clara crazy and that, even in early twentieth century America, had to be a little suspect. This story is more realistic than the first two and it more directly reflects the actual lifestyle of its subject, rating it an even higher notch on the “sadness meter,” as a result.


But things get worse because of the way that Henry James, up next, has his days as a London hospital volunteer during World War I so bleakly imagined by Oates. Himself desperately suffering from a heart condition that made physical work dangerous, James, when not debasing himself allows another to do it for him in a most shocking way, a scene that will stick in my mind longer than I really want it to (and, no, it is not the one between James and his favorite male patient).

Ernest Hemingway is saved for last and, although his final days are more familiar to most readers than those of the other four authors, his story seems saddest of all. Oates manages to place the reader into Hemingway’s mind in such a way that his ultimate suicide seems almost justifiable due to the man’s inability to face the loss of both his physical and his mental powers. It is heartbreaking to see this lion of a man go down with only the slightest of whimpers.


Wild Nights is one of those rare collections of which I will easily remember each of its stories for a long time to come. Joyce Carol Oates has, in a sense, “humanized” each of her subjects by emphasizing their weaknesses, the same weaknesses that, in combination with their particular strengths, made these writers the geniuses they were. Each of her stories mimics the writing style of the author being featured, part of the fun, and yet, part of the sadness that blankets the entire book. I’m not sure what motivated this particular book, nor what Ms. Oates hoped to accomplish by writing it, and I hesitate to recommend it to others because I don’t know how other readers will react to the extreme “realism” at its heart. Those afraid to have the images they carry of these authors in their heads changed might best avoid the book because change they certainly will. But those willing to take a chance on it will likely find it to be a book they will always remember in great detail.


This one won’t cheer you up, but I guarantee you that this time next year you won’t have a hard time remembering what it was about.


Rated at: 5.0

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