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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Short Story of the Week: "Probate" by Joyce Carol Oates

Although I have written quite a few posts about short stories for Book Chase, most of those posts have pertained to collections rather than to individual short stories.  I find it easier to write about collections than about single stories because, with single stories, I have to fight my tendency to give away too much.  I hate reading spoilers and I try not to write any.  That's easier said than done when it comes to short stories.  I do hope to write about individual stories more during 2012, maybe twice a month, beginning with today's entry.

Perhaps I can begin safely with a "longish" short story from Joyce Carol Oates's 2010 collection entitled Sourland.  I've chosen the 37-page story called "Probate" because of how it so completely encompasses the general theme of the collection.  Keep in mind that these stories were largely written around the time that Ms. Oates unexpectedly lost her husband of many years, a tragic experience that greatly influenced the stories in Sourland.

"Probate" tells one widow's story - and a sad and scary tale it is.

The story opens "on the third day of her new life" as an older woman tries to find her way inside the Trenton, New Jersey, courthouse so that she can probate her husband's will.  Adrienne, the widow of three-days experience, is virtually helpless.  She knows very little about the legalities of probate and is somewhat disoriented to find that hers is one of the few white faces in the entire building.

Things go wrong for Adrienne almost immediately, beginning with her strange encounter outside the courthouse with a young woman who barely seems to be speaking the same language.  During the nervous conversation, Adrienne finally panics and runs for the building's back entrance when the young woman (jokingly?) offers to sell her her toddler daughter.  Inside the courthouse, Adrienne enters an alien world for which she is totally unprepared - and things keep going downhill.

"Probate" is a Oates's portrayal of the bleak and confusing life faced by so many older women who are unprepared for the sudden loss of a husband who has taken care of all of life's little details during their decades of marriage.  It is a powerful and unforgettable story told in the way only someone who has experienced similar moments could possibly tell it.  Joyce Carol Oates is a master at portraying the all too common violence and loss that can change a life instantly, and she tells Adrienne's story in the voice I have come to love so much over the past 25 years.  "Probate" is not pretty; it is haunting and real.  It is a Joyce Carol Oates novel in a nutshell.

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