Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: High Crime Area by Joyce Carol Oates

From Goodreads:
Joyce Carol Oates is an unparalleled investigator of human flaws. In these eight stories, she deftly tests the bonds between damaged individuals—a brother and sister, a teacher and student, two strangers on a subway—in the fearless prose for which she’s become so celebrated. 

In the title story “High Crime Area,” a white, aspiring professor is convinced she is being followed. No need to panic, she has a handgun stowed away in her purse—just in case. But when she turns to confront her black, male shadow, the situation isn’t what she expects. In “The Rescuer,” a promising graduate student detours to inner city Trenton, New Jersey to save her brother from a downward spiral. But she soon finds out there may be more to his world than to hers. And in “The Last Man of Letters,” the world-renowned author X embarks on a final grand tour of Europe. He has money, fame, but not a whole lot of manners. A little thing like etiquette couldn’t bring a man like X down, could it? 

In these biting and beautiful stories, Oates confronts, one by one, the demons within us. Sometimes it’s the human who wins, and sometimes it’s the demon.
Writing
As prolific a writer as Joyce Carol Oates is, I don't think it will come as a surprise that this collection has some definite hits as well as some definite misses.  What I was hoping to find in these stories is exactly what the subtitle promises: tales of darkness and dread.  I particularly like Oates' brand of dark because she sticks to the realistic, for the most part.  Her tales aren't fantastical, they're examinations of the depths of the human heart as we see it in real life, particularly it's darker moments.  For the most part, in terms of writing quality, these stories lived up to my expectations.  They're just the right length and don't spell out all of the answers, leaving it up to the reader to ponder the outcomes.  I like an open-ended short story that leaves me thinking, and these fit that description for the most part.

Entertainment Value
While I appreciated and enjoyed several stories ("High Crime Area" and "The Rescuer" were my favorites), there were others that I found completely unmemorable.  I'd rather read a bad short story than one I immediately forget.  Unfortunately, I'd say about half the stories in this selection are rather forgettable.  Some fit the dark specification ("Demon" and "Toad Baby") but were just to bizarre for me to really enjoy.  As I mentioned above, I really enjoy her most when she sticks in the realm of the mostly-believable and doesn't try to get too experimental or fantastical.

Overall
There were some selections I loved and some that were only ok.  I definitely recommend giving Oates a try, especially if you're a fan of short stories, but I'm not sure that this collection is the one I'd start with.  If you're a fan of hers, however, I think there are enough good stories in here to merit reading it.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.

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