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Monday, December 03, 2012

Black Dahlia & White Rose


I have been reading Joyce Carol Oates for decades and I still do not know how she does it.  Now in her mid-seventies, Oates is producing some of the best, and darkest, fiction of her career – and she does it at a pace that would shame most writers half her age.  The quality and impact of her latest short story collection, Black Dahlia & White Rose, makes me believe that Ms. Oates will continue to write memorable fiction for a long time to come.  Thankfully.

Black Dahlia & White Rose is a collection of eleven short stories recently published in magazines such as Playboy, Harper’s, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  The book, comprised of four separate theme-related sections, opens with its tone-setting title story.  The story is based on the infamous 1947 Los Angeles murder-mutilation of Elizabeth Short (who was dubbed the “Black Dahlia”) that, to this day, remains unsolved.  It is especially striking because Oates allows the victim to speak retrospectively from beyond the grave and portrays her as having been the lone roommate of aspiring starlet Marilyn Monroe at the time of her murder. 

Real Life Murder Victim Elizabeth Short
Believe it or not, the stories get even darker from there.  Oates uses the remaining ten to expose the hidden inner lives of ordinary human beings simply trying to make their way from one day to the next without getting into any more trouble than they are in already.  Her characters, be they academics or befuddled middle-school students, San Quentin lifers or innocent young children, wives trapped in doomed marriages or abandoned husbands wondering what happened, all have something in common: they are miserable and they are looking for a way out.  But, because the choices they make often place these troubled souls into more precarious circumstances than the ones they yearn to escape, their moves usually just make things worse  

A poor college student learns the hard way that returning a found wallet does not always work out well for “The Good Samaritan.”  A respected college professor finds out how unprepared she is to do voluntary teaching inside the walls of a maximum-security prison.  A young middle-school student faces a life-changing trauma no child should ever be asked to confront alone.  A woman contacts a man to whom she was attracted when she was one of his graduate students – almost twenty years earlier.  These are just some of the sinister stories readers will experience in this collection.

Black Dahlia & White Rose is a collection via which the author reminds us again that we are all more vulnerable to evil and sudden loss than we dare admit to ourselves.  With approximately twenty short story collections already under her belt, Joyce Carol Oates has already accomplished more than most writers would dare dream of accomplishing in an entire career.  

And that is just her short fiction.  
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