Oates examines failed families in 'Dear Husband'

"Dear Husband" (HarperCollins, 336 pages, $24.99), by Joyce Carol Oates.

"I'm drawn to failure," Joyce Carol Oates once famously told an interviewer. "I feel that I'm contending with it constantly in my own life."

The latter statement might strike some as disingenuous given Oates' status as one of the great contemporary American novelists. But she expertly uses failure — of relationships, mainly — as a common thread through most of the short stories collected in "Dear Husband."

Although nearly all 14 stories have been published elsewhere, they merit a book of their own. Admirers of Oates' literary fiction will find this collection a transcendent read. "Dear Husband" is likely to win Oates new fans as well.

Oates' characters are masterfully rendered, but she is particularly gifted at creating a certain type: The appallingly egocentric, sometimes to the point of (usually) unwitting hostility. This character appears often in the stories of "Dear Husband," from the preoccupied parents of "Special" to the vindictive former housekeeper in "A Princeton Idyll." Perhaps the most striking example is "Cutty Sark," in which Quincy Smartt, an exhibitionist socialite — flush with notoriety from authoring an explicit memoir — celebrates her adolescent son's birthday by sharing a secret of great distress but questionable value.

"Kit's birthday but she hadn't asked him where he'd have liked to go for lunch knowing it wouldn't have been L'Auberge on Chambers Street where clearly Quincy Smartt was known and admired and drew the eyes of strangers. Eager to show off her handsome son she'd said. ... Kit squirmed in embarrassment on the verge of saying 'For Christ's sake, Mom, lay off,' but it had been a long time since he'd called his mother 'Mom,' still longer since he'd called her 'Mommy.' He wasn't comfortable calling her 'Quincy' as she'd requested and so most of the time he called her nothing at all."

Sometimes the egocentricity of Oates' characters ferments into self-loathing and spills over violently. Infanticide plays a role in two of the stories in this collection, including "Dear Husband." The collection's namesake story takes its inspiration from Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who was convicted in 2002 for drowning her five young children in the bathtub. (Oates reimagines another real-life tragedy in another one of the collection's stories, "Landfill.")

Sometimes Oates' evocative prose plays at least as much of a role as any characters. Especially haunting is "Magda Maria," in which Oates describes the blighted denizens of a hard-luck town and their desire for a mysterious woman there.

Oates' characters are all self-absorbed to some extent. They all regard themselves as more real than their bystanders, with needs that sometimes conflict and consume but always take precedence. They appear to exist for their own benefit, certainly not the reader's. While it may seem obvious that any worthwhile fiction will feature such characters, some authors are more skilled at delivering them than others.

In this regard, Oates is one of the best.

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