The Barrens

The Barrens

by Joyce Carol Oates

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In this gripping psychological thriller, Joyce Carol Oates, New York Times best-selling author and one of the most versatile and original voices in contemporary American fiction, delivers a startling, complex tale of a serial killer and the people that his ghastly crimes touch—and transform. People like Matt McBride. Matt was barely out of junior high when the

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In this gripping psychological thriller, Joyce Carol Oates, New York Times best-selling author and one of the most versatile and original voices in contemporary American fiction, delivers a startling, complex tale of a serial killer and the people that his ghastly crimes touch—and transform. People like Matt McBride. Matt was barely out of junior high when the mutilated body of the first victim—a popular, pretty teenager—was uncovered in the desolate New Jersey Pine Barrens. Although he had hardly known the girl, Matt has long felt guilty at not having been able somehow to prevent the atrocity. Now another attractive young woman has disappeared, and Matt knew this victim, too. Just possibly he knew her more intimately than he is prepared to admit. By degrees Matt becomes obsessed with a guilt he can neither comprehend nor assuage. His seemingly happy marriage begins to deteriorate, while his increasingly erratic behavior heightens police suspicions. It also draws official attention away from an artist—a man of limited talent but of fierce, demented vision—who signs his work Name Unknown. Under the spell of the missing woman, Matt follows a path that leads him out of the maze of tortured memory to a confrontation with not only the baleful Name Unknown but also his own long-unacknowledged self. The outcome is shattering. With “murder as an art and the serial killer as an artist,” National Book Award–winner Joyce Carol Oates shows “how a murderer’s savage creations ... transform a man’s life.”—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times “Oates fans may judge [The Barrens] the best Smith novel yet.”—Boston Herald

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A serial killer and his pursuer engage in a lurid dance in this overextended psychological thriller written under the name Oates uses for her psycho-dramas (like Double Delight). The novel charts the emotional ruin of Matt McBride, a real estate agent in the upscale New Jersey suburb of Weymouth, where he lives with his attractive wife and their two sons. McBride has been haunted since childhood by the memory of a high school classmate whose body was found ravaged in the desolate Pine Barrens. Now, 20 years later, McBride becomes a suspect in the disappearance of local artist Duana Zwoll, a woman whom McBride knew and admired. Although McBride manages to convince the police of his innocence, he remains wracked by guilt that a second female acquaintance has met a ghastly end. As his marriage slowly crumbles, McBride fixates on finding the killer. He narrows his search to another local artist, the marginally talented yet ghoulishly eccentric Joseph Gavin, whose artwork appears to incorporate human body parts. Could he be the man responsible for the deaths of countless East Coast women in recent years? It's a testament to Oates's skill that the suspense is instant and intense. Her setting, which contrasts Weymouth's chi-chi facade with the tormented lives of its residents, is exquisite, as is her treatment of McBride's personal tailspin. Yet the motivation for his obsessive quest for the killer guilt at being unable to prevent two murders never quite convinces. Nor does the character of Gavin, whose repetitive spiritual rants and egomania bloat the story and make him more a figure of absurdity than a credible threat to human life. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Writing under an accustomed pseudonym, Oates offers a psychological thriller that isn't so much about the actual murders as a bystander's obsession with them. Matt McBride has had a lifelong preoccupation with the unsolved abduction and murder of a high school acquaintance. When an artist friend is murdered in a similar fashion, the obsession grows to the point of completely taking over McBride's life, destroying his marriage and career in the process. His uncommon interest and some incriminating evidence found in the victim's home make him a suspect in the eyes of the police. The story is taut, though the author misses several opportunities to capitalize on the circumstances she sets up. After over 200 pages of buildup, the resolution of the multiple murders comes so swiftly that it disappoints and leaves many questions unanswered. But the story seems to be more about missed opportunities, and the ending fits the flawed characters that Oates is so expert at creating. Recommended for all public libraries. Caroline Mann, Univ. of Portland Lib., OR Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Like Henry James perversely trying to make a second career by conquering the London stage, Joyce Carol Oates seems bent on devoting part of her prodigious gifts to pseudonymous neo-gothic thrillers like this latest. Twenty-one years after the murder and mutilation of high-school student Marcey Mason from his South Jersey hometown, and less than a week after the disappearance of graphic artist Duana Zwolle from the posh central Jersey community where he's settled, the cops come calling on rising realtor Matt McBride. Under their probing questions, he admits that he had indeed known the missing woman, but he doesn't admit that he'd taken a series of photographs of her house, or that he'd just had a nightmare about the earlier victim. Although Matt writhes so desperately under official pressure that he seems a good bet to be the killer, it's clear early on that Duana and Marcey (and, as it turns out, quite a few others) have been murdered by welder Joseph Gavin, who signs both his sculptures and his victims NAME UNKNOWN. Terrified that he's losing control of the good life he's taken for granted and haunted by Smith's incantatory prose ("People always know more than they think they know" is perhaps the most resonant of several mantras here), Matt launches his own search for Duana's killer and plunges into a thicket of Smith's trademark twins. Duana herself turns out to have a biological twin that anchors her doubling with her friend Oriana, a potter and painter Matt is unhealthily drawn toward; Matt serves as his own double (he signs his photos "Nighthawk"); and he's eventually paired with the creepy, if never exactly memorable, NAME UNKNOWN. Not the best or worst of the overheated,essentially routine thrillers (Starr Bright Will Be with You Soon, 1999, etc.) signed by the author's own double, but a puzzling waste of Oates's talent.

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Product Details

Da Capo Press
Publication date:
Otto Penzler Books Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.62(w) x 8.72(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Where she'd died wasn't where she would be found. That was one of the few facts they would learn.

    A coastal marsh near the south Jersey shore, at the edge of the Pine Barrens. Where the incoming tide lifts the body, buoys it up then surrenders it by degrees back to the marsh. Like sleeping it must seem. To the dead girl. This slow rhythmic rising and ebbing, rising and ebbing of the tide. Like breathing. A stinging northeast wind off the Atlantic pushing through cattails, seagrass. By night, by day. Dusk, dawn. A ceaseless wind. A rain-swollen sky. Even by day the swamp is shadows. When the tide returns the body seems to awaken, floating again in shallow brackish water that has frozen on its surface, and now thaws, a dark glitter thin as the thinnest glass. A stippled surface in which filaments of cloud are reflected dimly. By night, a glaring full moon. High-scudding broken clouds. As if part of the sky had been dislodged and was being blown from one pole to the other. Always the wind, always the tide! While the naked, broken body lies on its back in the posture of sleep. Head turned too sharply to one side. The mouth is opened in a mute scream. A paralyzed scream. The mouth is a hole ridged in blood. The nose has been smashed, the jaws broken. The eyes are open in their blackened sockets, sightless. Long tangled hair rippling like seaweed when the coastal water returns. Always the tide returns, twice daily, in a quickened current, in gushes. The sun burns through the mist, the body is exposed. A dead body is a broken thing. Among so many broken things. Stumps of dead trees, dead vines. The naked, broken body is stirred by the incoming tide as if waking, returning to life. But scummy with coagulated blood. Dark patches defacing the body like swaths of tar. Bony wrists and ankles bound by wire. The lacerated throat bound by wire cutting so deep into the flesh the wire isn't visible. Gulls swooping overhead, darting, stabbing with their sharp curved beaks. Their high, excited cries. Who would love this body now, who would dream of this body now?

    Who would touch this body, now?

Excerpted from THE BARRENS by JOYCE CAROL OATES. Copyright © 2001 by Joyce Carol Oates. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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