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    An excess of Oates

    While Joyce Carol Oates is a modern master of the short story, she needs to be more selective in what she chooses to publish.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

    For a long stretch, when anyone asked me who my favorite writer was, my answer was unequivocal: Joyce Carol Oates.

    In college, when asked to discuss her short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" I got choked up. "It's too upsetting," I said, putting my head down on my desk. It was pathetic. I love that story.

    I bought everything Oates wrote (and as anyone who knows the extent of her output can imagine, I all but went broke). For years, I defended her against detractors who said she published too often for her own good. I admired her energy, I told them, and kept reading.

    Okay, I had to admit, Heat and Other Stories (1992) was kind of bland.

    Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (her 1995 collection of horror stories) was largely disappointing.

    And Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon (a short novel released in paperback last year) was transparent.

    I was losing hope. I stopped taking notice of Oates' name on the book shelves. I didn't even consider reading last year's tome, Blonde. But the spark was still there; when I saw Faithless, her new short story collection, I decided to give her another shot. The title, after all, seemed to be speaking directly to me.

    Faithless, the title short story, focuses on unsavory human behavior: adultery, suicide and emotional shortcomings, with some religious imagery thrown in for irony.

    A Manhattan Romance, the story of a father who makes a desperate escape with his young daughter -- an unknowing hostage -- at his side, is eerily fast-paced.

    Summer Sweat, about a long-lost secret affair, is filled with hidden gems, things we don't want to admit we know: "You can't make love with another woman's husband for most of an afternoon without fantasizing a certain power over his thoughts, a claim to his loyalty."

    But those few shining moments aside, the rest of the collectio is less than compelling. Ugly, about a bitter young woman who convinces herself she's ugly in the interest of self-preservation, is boring and far too long. We Were Worried About You, though its Flannery O'Connor feel is appealing, doesn't take us anywhere.

    And fragments! Fragments and exclamation points! Used sparingly, both can be effective. But too many are distracting! Not to mention all those thoughts set off by italics . . . With too many devices calling attention to themselves, we focus on the clever technique, not the story. Too often in these pieces, we see the writer behind the curtain, manipulating the strings. Winnowing the best of these 21 stories would have yielded a far stronger book.

    "She's a joke monster who ought to be beheaded in a public auditorium," Truman Capote once cruelly said of Joyce Carol Oates. "She does all the graffiti . . . in every public toilet from here to California and back, stopping in Seattle on her way."

    I'm not prepared to go that far. I think Oates is still one of the modern masters of the short story. I am still impressed that her well of ideas never seems to run dry. I still think she's a brilliant writer (even if no longer my favorite), but she can't always be brilliant. She needs to be more selective. She needs to publish less.

    There, I've said it.

    - Samantha Puckett is a Times staff writer.

    * * *


    Tales of Transgression

    By Joyce Carol Oates

    Ecco Press, $27

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