JOYCE CAROL OATES Tortured souls, ugly episodes

The author has cultivated a reputation as an expert on human misery.
"Faithless: Tales of Transgression," by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press, $27).
If there is a central theme to be found in Joyce Carol Oates' latest collection of short stories, it is not, as the title implies, necessarily faithlessness or transgression.
Instead in these 21 stories she revisits the vast tabloid freak zone of weirdos, stalkers, abusive spouses, abusive parents, victims and gun nuts that has become her vision of modern-day America.
Divided into three clearly thematic sections, the collection begins with stories of fractured, often violent relationships. In "Au Sable," the opening story, Otto Behn, an aging, angry man calls his son-in-law to tell him that he and his cancer-ridden wife are about to take their own lives at the family's summer cabin and not to inform their daughter until later.
Leaving such a situation to Oates, the dialogue is at once ordinary and chilling. "We left everything in order," Otto states matter of factly, "will, insurance policies, investment files, bankbooks, keys."
Female psyche: Likewise, Oates' best-known ability, that of dissecting the twisted female psyche, is on display through the characters of Adriana Kaplan, the benzedrine-addicted narrator of "Summer Sweat," who recalls in intimate detail the most destructive relationship of her life, and "Gunlove," a series of vignettes told by a young Vassar student whose attraction to firearms can only be described as erotic.
The title story, a mystery selected in 1998 for The Pushcart Prize, is a haunting piece of Poe-like material in which two women recall the disappearance of their mother when they were children.
Molestation: "What Then, My Life?" another selection from the second section, possesses the same familial element which links the section's four stories.
Here, a celebrity is haunted by a childhood molestation at the hands of several male cousins and her grandmother's complicity in the abuse. Searching for answers leads only to more unanswerable questions. "Why did Grandma Wolpert hate me?" begins Oates' internal dialogue.
But in this cruelly constructed world of feverish dreams and convulsive memories, such questions will never be answered, and a life remains damaged forever.
Violence: It is no coincidence that the 10 stories in the final section contain a much stronger sense of visceral violence and death: a bloody matricide, a high school student ready to snap in "Tusk," a graphic assault of a suspect by the police, and an electric chair execution, all pulled from the headlines and thrown at us in an effort to satisfy the most lurid fascination.
In the most grisly of these, the ironically titled "A Manhattan Romance," a once affluent father now pursued by the authorities takes his daughter on a fun-filled day throughout New York City before committing suicide in his hotel room while clutching her in his arms.
As one of America's most prolific writers, Oates is, without a doubt, best known for this preoccupation with life's more tragic side.
"Faithless" continues the tradition, and for this reason, the short story provides her with the best possible vehicle to present the two dozen or so tortured souls that make "Faithless" best taken in several sittings.

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