Monday, January 16, 2012


Sourland: Stories is a collection of sixteen Joyce Carol Oates short stories, fifteen of which appear to have been written in 2009 or early 2010.  The third story in the collection, “The Babysitter,” was first published in Ellery Queen and was reprinted in Horror: The Best of the Year 2006.  Readers who know something of Oates’s personal history will notice how clearly the tone of this work reflects the impact the author felt from the loss of her husband of some forty-seven years, Raymond Smith.  Mr. Smith, who seemed to be recovering from the illness that hospitalized him, died suddenly on February 18, 2008.  Considering the subject matter and feel of the stories, I do find it interesting that the book’s dedication reads: “for my husband Charlie Gross.”

Most of the stories reflect themes that fans of Oates’s work have come to expect from her: the persistent possibility of violence when it is least expected, adult males taking advantage of the innocence of young females, the often violent clash of the privileged class with those who have nothing much to lose, and the chaotic shock of sudden loss.  Several of these stories, however, in the persons of freshly minted widows, reflect more precisely the feelings expressed by Oates in her late 2010 memoir, A Widow’s Story.  Not surprisingly, these are the strongest stories in the collection.

The collection opens with one of these stories, “Pumpkin Head,” in which a young, isolated widow innocently sends all the wrong signals to an immigrant from Central Europe who offers to do her a personal favor.  When the man’s frustration with his new life in America suddenly explodes, she is a bit bewildered to find herself the target of his wrath.

The book’s title story, “Sourland,” and the one called “Probate,” are particularly reminiscent of the experiences and feelings described by Oates in her recent memoir.  The widows in each of these stories are still unprepared to function in the real world, but are unable to communicate their desperation and confusion to anyone who might help ease them back into a semblance of the life they knew before losing their husbands.  In “Sourland,” Sophie allows nostalgia and sweet memories of the stranger who has mysteriously contacted her to lure her into a remote area from which she fears she may never escape.  “Probate” is the dreamlike experience of newly widowed Adrienne whose courthouse experiences are horrifyingly detailed.  Both stories, in fact, probably resemble the type of nightmare one would expect a new widow to experience.

Joyce Carol Oates
Other stories in the collection are more akin to what one expects from Oates.  A young married woman seeks marital revenge and almost dies in the process.  A formerly admired teacher she happens to meet in a hospital cafeteria molests a 14-year-old girl.  The defender of one family’s honor pays for his audacity in the most heartbreaking way possible.  A little boy becomes terrified of his own father and refuses to give away his hiding spot despite the danger he is in.  And, there is more, much more.

Not all of the stories work equally well, of course.  Two “stream of consciousness” pieces and one other story left me particularly bewildered, but I am inclined to blame myself for that as much as I would put the burden on Oates.  Sourland is a collection of some of the darkest, most disturbing, tales being written today.  That it is also one of the most personal collections of stories ever released by Joyce Carol Oates makes it even more memorable.

Rated at: 3.5

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