Joyce Carol Oates: Last Days; E. P. Dutton; New York.
Joseph Campos-De Metro: The Slugger Heart & Other Stories; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego.
At 47, Joyce Carol Oates has to her credit more than 40 books, including 16 rather fat novels and nearly as many collections of not-so-short stories. Ms. Oates is also, however, one of this country’s most widely criticized authors. She is, say her detractors, simply too prolific; she never blots a line when she ought to blot a thousand. Indeed, say some, Oates too often puts into print little more than automatic writing that is not only bloated, but gaudy, repetitious, and melodramatic.
These complaints are not without merit. But as Somerset Maugham liked to insist, an author has a right to be judged by his best work; and Ms. Oates is—at her best—a fine writer. For example, such neatly shaped stories as “A Descriptive Catalogue” and “Rewards of Fame,” collected in The Hun gry Ghosts (1974), capture perfectly that atmosphere of pretentiousness and paranoia that infects much of the academic world. At her best, Oates is unusually inventive and scrupulous: she creates plots and characters that live long in the mind. Arnold Friend, the sleazy teen age imposter who appears in the brilliant 1967 story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one such character, as is the obese, manipulative Dr. Pedersen, who looms so large in Wonderland (1971).
Ms. Oates’s fictional world is often ugly and violent, but of course so is much of postwar America that she at tempts to capture—and comprehend. Oates does not press for a return to religious orthodoxy, it is true, but she backs no fashionable political panaceas either. She does not set out to raise questions that the editors of The Nation can easily answer. Oates wonders about the nature of evil and its resilience in the world. She is sensitive to the many ways in which the religious impulse continues to reveal itself in a largely secular age. Though Oates’s own vision sometimes seems irredeemably bleak, many of her more sympathetically drawn characters do exhibit a kind of dignity: in the face of adversity, they struggle on.
The 11 stories collected in Oates’s Last Days range from the very good to the rather tedious. Among the better stories is “The Man Whom Women Adored,” which contains a marvelous portrait of a shallow, self-absorbed Lothario who carries into adulthoodthe sensibility of an unusually pampered child. In “TheWall,” which is equally good, a young East Berliner meditates on that massive, terrifying and yet “mesmerizing” barrier that has all of his life imprisoned him in a city where men and women quietly seethe and dream daily of daring flights to freedom.
“Detente,” “My Warszawa,” and”Old Budapest” also look unsentimen tally at life in Soviet-dominated countries. But these focus on central figures who are simply not very interesting, on touring academic types who in shabby hotels and beneath overcast skies brood a bit too predictably about the strangeness and the poignancy of it all. Oates traveled on the cocktail and colloquia circuit throughout Western and Eastern Europe in 1980; these three rather forced stories are, in effect, the post cards her most devoted fans expected—and which only they can enjoy.
Like Oates, Joseph Campos-De Metro grew up in a working class environment in a grimy Northeastern city, and like her he seeks to portray blue collar life in his fiction. The characters in The Slugger Heart & Other Stories work as retail clerks, factory hands, and assistant managers in grocery stores; they fix big Sunday dinners, play bocce ball, and watch hours and hours of TV. They are then thoroughly average people, and Campos-De Metro, though he knows how to push a plot along, does not succeed in making them particularly intriguing.
In fact, because he is obviously something of a sentimentalist trying a bit too hard to prove his sympathy for the working folks, Campos-De Metro ends up creating characters who would not be entirely out of place in a network sit-com or in a Sylvester Stallone movie. They are, like Uncle Tonoose, a bit too lovable, cute. Campos-De Metro would thus do well to lock up his own television and read his Oates. Joyce may serve us too much gore and gloom on occasion, but she goes easy on the schmaltz. cc
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