Monday, February 23, 2009

The Barrens

Adults tend to see serial killers as replacements for the monsters of their childhoods. Something about how those mysterious killers strike time-after-time without being seen, often going years before being caught, if ever caught at all, reminds them of the monsters they imagined under their beds and in their closets. We never see them but they scare the hell out of us because we know they are out there somewhere.

Joyce Carol Oates, writing as Rosamond Smith in her 2001 book, The Barrens, explores the long history of one New Jersey serial killer who, almost despite himself, gets away with murder for a very long time. Unbeknownst to the killer, this time, though, his snatch-and-murder of a young woman will also claim a male victim, a young family man who for the second time in his life becomes obsessed with one of the killer's victims.

Matt McBride has built a good life for his wife and two sons in wealthy Weymouth, New Jersey, where he is a hugely successful real estate agent. McBride, however, is unable to forget a high school classmate whose mutilated body was discovered in the swampy New Jersey Pine Barrens not far from the school they both attended. Though he barely knew the girl, McBride still feels guilty that he did not save her from her fate.

Twenty years later, this time in Weymouth, another young woman with whom he was barely acquainted disappears, and McBride's old nightmares return stronger than ever. Driven to find the killer, no matter the cost to his marriage, job or family, Matt McBride begins his own investigation into the woman's disappearance despite the fact that certain Weymouth detectives believe he himself might be her killer.

The suspense builds as Oates brings McBride and the killer closer and closer together in alternating chapters told from the points-of-view of the two men. As the official police investigation goes nowhere, a violent confrontation between McBride and the killer seems inevitable, the only question being which, if either of them, will survive the showdown.

The Barrens does not make for quick reading because of the rambling, at times almost incoherent, style Oates uses for the chapters written in the killer's voice. In fact, although the book is short of three hundred pages in length, it seems longer because of the extra effort it requires of its readers. Oates is not known for painting pretty pictures or crafting happy endings for her novels and here she fills Weymouth with flawed characters intent on making the most of their shallow lifestyles. Surprisingly, however, she has written an ending for The Barrens that can be characterized, for her, as a happy one - strange though it is.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I have not read anything by Ms. Oates. I'm of the opinion that serial killers don't really exist in real life, just in fiction. (With a small handful of exceptions that prove the rule.) But I do like a good mystery/thriller now and then.

  2. C.B., we've had two instances (that we know of) in Houston since I've lived here (1972-2009). In one case the victims were teen boys, drifters all, who were strangled by a man who lived not far from me at the time. Another was a Mexican illegal who rode the trains and jumped off in various cities to kill women.