Joyce Carol Oates, the author of over forty novels and numerous short stories, clearly demands a great deal of herself as a writer. She also asks much of her readers; that they stick with her, for example, through digressions, declamations, and repeated excavations of deformed psyches and wounded souls. The gripping first section of Oates’s new novel, Carthage, illustrates why, time after time, we do just that. Oates sets her snare with a fevered prologue that conjures up the “humid insect-breeding midsummer of 2005 in which Zeno Mayfield’s younger daughter vanished into the Natauga State Forest Preserve with the seeming ease of a snake writhing out of its desiccated and torn outer skin.” For the next 200 pages or so, the family’s dread is palpable and the narrative tension relentless. “Since that minute he’d been awake in a way he was rarely awake — all of his sense alert, to the point of pain. Stark-staring awake, as if his eyelids had been removed,” Oates writes of Zeno, from the moment that he and his wife, Arlette, learn that nineteen year-old Cressida is missing. Fear distorts time. “Downstairs, the lighted kitchen awaited them like a stage set…The rapidly shrinking remnant of the night-before-dawn in the Mayfields’ house had acquired an air of desperation.”  

A search of the forest and river near the small town of Carthage, New York, is finally abandoned, and there are reports of Cressida last being seen in a low dive, drinking with Brett Kincaid, a wounded Iraq War veteran who is also the former fiancé of Cressida’s sister, Julie. Julie is “the pretty one,” Cressida “the smart one” with, we later learn, “…a mean little charcoal lump of a heart.” Small and sharp, disdainful of her family and friends, artistically gifted and easily slighted, Cressida is a recognizable Oates heroine, destined to suffer. Carthage, too, is familiar territory, a hard-edged town where crime is typically “a domestic fracas spilling out onto a South Carthage street, three adults and a ten year-old child killed in a blast of gunfire. Adirondack Hells Angels arrested in a methamphetamine lab raid…”

Oates powerfully evokes this corner of New York State with unadorned descriptions of its well-worn streets, its decayed gentility, and its laconic speech. “Even our wounds here are small,” Julie Mayfield realizes when she welcomes home her fiancé, horribly disfigured, from Iraq. In an abrupt swerve, Oates takes us there. Through Brett’s eyes, we witness atrocities carried out by his fellow soldiers, in particular the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl, a crime that Brett naively reports only to be victimized himself.

This detour into horror, away from the vanished Cressida, whom Brett is suspected of murdering, sets the novel on an elliptical course from New York State to Florida and back, but the road, in this case, is not an escape route. Oates leaves behind Carthage and Brett’s wartime flashbacks only to plunge into a different nightmare: “They’d passed the Death Row building. Cinder block with small barred windows like half-shut eyes.” A small group touring a maximum security prison in Florida is led into the execution chamber, and a volunteer is invited to enter “the bathysphere…eight-sided, like a deformed circle…Robin’s-egg blue: the hue of bright childlike hope.” Sabbath McSwain, a young woman working for an undercover whistleblower, lies on the table and almost loses consciousness. By this point, the reader, too, has been tested by the tour guide’s gleeful descriptions of botched executions and might be forgiven for skipping whole pages. Not content with evoking prison life in vivid detail (even the sky above appears “…white-glowering and opaque. Like a thin rubber film stretched tight”), Oates must also induce revulsion, a response that leaves little room for sympathy, even for Sabbath, a heroine more resilient than most.

Divided into three parts, “The Lost Girl,” “Exile,” and “The Return,” Carthage takes us on a looping, sinuous journey; along the way Oates’s language, too, veers widely — one passage may be restrained and precise, the next soaring and portentous as an incantation. With each shock and swerve, the engrossing mystery of “a solitary girl…Saturday night – a terrible blunder” fades, as do the outlines of the Mayfields and other characters that were so sharply drawn early on. When the story returns to Carthage, the focus tightens, and Zeno Mayfield in particular comes strongly into view, still vital as he clutches his “smudged tumbler of whiskey.” By that stage, however, the novel  seems exhausted, its tensile energy sapped by all that soaring. Like the long-suffering reader, it limps toward an unconvincingly redemptive ending.