In this collection of twenty-one unforgettable stories, Joyce Carol Oates explores the mysterious private lives of men and women with vivid, unsparing precision and sympathy. By turns interlocutor and interpreter, magician and realist, she dissects the psyches of ordinary people and their potential for good and evil with chilling understatement and lasting power.
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About the Author
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been several times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and the New York Times bestseller The Falls, which won the 2005 Prix Femina. Her most recent novel is A Book of American Martyrs. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:Lockport, New York
Education:B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
Read an Excerpt
Early evening, August. In the stillness of the suburban house, the telephone rang. Mitchell hesitated only a moment before lifting the receiver. And here was the first wrong note. The caller was Mitchell's father-in-law, Otto Behn.
Not for years had Otto called before the phone rates went down at 11 P.M. Not even when Otto's wife Teresa had been hospitalized.
The second wrong note. The voice. "Mitch? Hello! It's me Otto." Otto's voice was oddly lifted, eager, as if Otto were a farther distance away than usual and worried that Mitchell couldn't hear him. And he sounded affable, even buoyant -- as Otto rarely was these days on the phone. Lizbeth, Otto's daughter, had come to dread his calls in the late evening: as soon as you picked up the phone, Otto would launch into one of his riffs, complaint-tirades, deadpan, funny, but with a cold fury beneath, in the long-ago style of Lenny Bruce, whom Otto had much admired in the late 1950s. Now, in his eighties, Otto had himself become an angry man: angry about his wife's cancer, angry about his own "chronic condition," angry about their Forest Hills neighbors (noisy kids, barking dogs, lawn mowers, leaf blowers), angry about being made to wait two hours "in a refrigerated room" for his most recent MRI, angry about politicians, including even those he'd helped canvass votes for in the first heady flush of his retirement from high school teaching fifteen years ago. It was old age that Otto was angry about, but who could tell the poor man that? Not his daughter, and certainly not his son-in-law.
Tonight, though, Otto wasn't angry.
In a warmly genial, if slightly forced voice he queried Mitchell about Mitchell's work, which was corporate architectural design; and about Lizbeth, who was the Behns' only daughter; and about their grown, beautiful, departed children, Otto's grandchildren he'd adored as kids and this went on for a while until at last Mitchell said uneasily, "Uh, Otto -- Lizbeth is out at the mall. She'll be back around seven. Should I have her call you?"
Otto laughed loudly. You could all but see the saliva glistening on his full, fleshy lips. "Don't want to talk to the old man, eh?"
Mitchell tried to laugh, too. "Otto, we've been talking."
Otto said, more seriously, "Mitch, my friend, I'm glad you picked up. Not Bethie. I can't talk long and I'd prefer, I guess, to talk to you."
"Yes?" Mitchell felt a touch of dread. Never in their thirty years of acquaintance had Otto Behn called him "friend." Teresa must be out of remission again. Dying? Otto himself had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease three years before. Not a severe case, yet. Or was it?
Guiltily Mitchell realized that he and Lizbeth hadn't visited the older couple in almost a year, though they lived less than two hundred miles away. Lizbeth was dutiful about telephoning, usually Sunday evenings, hoping (usually futilely) to speak first with her mother, whose telephone manner was weakly cheerful and optimistic; but the last time they'd visited, they'd been shocked by Teresa's deterioration. The poor woman had had months of chemotherapy and was bone-thin, her skin like wax. Not long ago, in her sixties, she'd been exuberant, fleshy, sturdy as an earthenware pot. And there was Otto, hovering about, tremors in both hands that he seemed to be exacerbating out of comic spite, complaining brilliantly about medical workers, HMOs, and UFOs "in conspiracy" -- what a strained, exhausting visit. On the drive home, Lizbeth recited lines from an Emily Dickinson poem -- "'Oh Life, begun in fluent Blood, and consummated dull!'"
"Jesus," Mitchell said, dry-mouthed, shivering. "That's it, isn't it?"
Now, ten months later, there was Otto on the phone speaking matter-of-factly, as you'd discuss selling some property, of a "certain decision" he and Teresa had come to. Teresa's "white-cell blood count," his own "shitty news" -- which he wasn't going to discuss. The books were closed permanently on that subject, he said. Mitchell, trying to make sense of this, leaned against a wall, suddenly weak. This is happening too fast. What the hell is this? Otto was saying, in a lowered voice, "We decided not to tell you and Lizbeth, her mother was back in Mount Sinai in July. They sent her home. We've made our decision. This isn't to discuss, Mitch, y'understand? It's to inform. And to ask you to honor our wishes."
"Wishes -- ?"
"We've been looking through albums, old photos and things, and having a ball of a time. Things I haven't seen in forty years. Teresa keeps saying, 'Wow! We did all this? We lived all that?' It's a weird, humbling thing, sort of, to realize we'd been goddamned happy, even when we didn't know it. I didn't have a clue, I've got to confess. So many years, looking back, sixty-two years Teresa and I've been together, you'd think it would be depressing as hell but actually, in the right mood, it isn't. Teresa says, 'We've already had about three lives, haven't we?' "
"Excuse me," Mitchell said, through a roaring of blood in his ears, "--what is this 'decision' you've made?"
Otto said, "Right. I'm asking you to honor our wishes in this respect, Mitch. I think you understand."
"I -- what?"
"I wasn't sure whether I should speak with Lizbeth. How she'd react. You know, when your kids first left home for college." Otto paused. Tactful. Ever the gentleman. Never would he speak critically about Lizbeth to Mitchell, though with Lizbeth he could be blunt and wounding, or had been in the past. He said now, hesitantly, "She can be, well -- emotional."
On a hunch Mitchell asked where Otto was.
"Are you in Forest Hills?"
Otto paused. "No, we're not."
"Where are you, then?"
Otto said, an edge of defiance in his voice, "At the cabin."
"The cabin? Au Sable?"
"Right. Au Sable."
Otto let that point sink in.
They pronounced the name differently. Mitchell, 0 Sable, three syllables; Otto, Oz'ble, one elided syllable, as locals pronounced it.
Au Sable meant the Behns' property in the Adirondacks. Hundreds of miles away. A seven-hour drive, and the final arduous hour along narrow, twisting, mostly unpaved mountain roads north of Au Sable Forks. So far as Mitchell knew, the Behns hadn't spent time there in years. If he'd given thought to it -- and he had not, for subjects pertaining to Lizbeth's parents were left to Lizbeth to ponder -- Mitchell would have advised the Behns to sell the property, hardly a cabin but a six-bedroom lodge of hand-hewn logs, not winterized, on twelve acres of beautiful, desolate countryside south of Mount Moriah. Mitchell would not have wished Lizbeth to inherit this property. For they wouldn't feel comfortable selling it, something that had meant so much at one time to Teresa and Otto; yet Au Sable was too remote for them, impractical. They were people who quickly became restless away from what they called civilization: pavement, newspapers, wine shops, decent tennis courts, friends, and at least the possibility of good restaurants. In Au Sable, you drove an hour to get to -- what? Au Sable Forks. Years ago, of course, when the kids were young, they'd gone each summer to visit Lizbeth's parents, and, yes, it was a fact: the Adirondacks were beautiful and waking early in the morning you saw Mount Moriah startlingly close like a mammoth dream and the air achingly fresh and pure piercing your lungs and even the cries of birds sharper and more defined than you were accustomed to and there was the conviction, unless it was the wish, that such physical revelations signaled a spiritual condition -- but, still, Lizbeth and Mitchell were equally restless to leave, after a few days of this. They'd take to afternoon naps in their second-story screened-in room surrounded by pines like a vessel afloat on a green-tinctured sea. Tender lovemaking and dreamy, drifting conversations of a kind they never had anywhere else. Still, after a few clays they were eager to leave.
Mitchell swallowed hard. He wasn't used to questioning his father-in-law and felt like one of Otto Behn's high school students, intimidated by the man he admired. "Otto, wait -- why are you and Teresa in Au Sable?"
Otto said carefully, "We are planning to remedy our situation. We have made our decision, and this is to -- " Otto paused, tactfully. "This is to inform you."
Mitchell felt, for all that Otto was speaking so reasonably, as if the man had kicked him in the stomach. What was this? What was he hearing? This call isn't for me. This is a mistake. Otto was saying that they'd been planning this for three years, minimum. Since his own diagnosis. They'd been "stockpiling" what was required. Good potent reliable barbiturates. Nothing in haste, and nothing left to chance, and nothing to regret. "You know," Otto said expansively, " -- I'm a man who plans ahead."
This was true. You had to concede the point.
Mitchell wondered: how much had Otto accumulated? Investments in the 1980s, some rental properties on Long Island. Mitchell felt a sinking, sickening sensation. They will leave most of it to us. Who else? He could see Teresa smiling as she'd smiled planning her lavish Christmas dinners, her monumental Thanksgivings, the presentation of gifts to grandchildren, gorgeously wrapped. Otto was saying, "You promise me, Mitchell. I need to trust you," and Mitchell said, "Look, Otto," stalling, dazed, " -- do we have your number there?" and Otto said, "Answer me, please," and Mitchell heard himself saying, not knowing what he was saying, "Of course you can trust me, Otto! But is your phone connected?" and Otto said, annoyed, "No. We've never needed a phone in the cabin," and Mitchell said, for this had been an old vexation between them, from years ago, "Certainly you need a phone in that cabin, that's exactly the place you do need a phone," and Otto muttered something inaudible, the verbal equivalent of a shrug, and Mitchell thought, He's calling from a pay phone in Au Sable Forks, he's about to hang up. Quickly Mitchell said, "Hey, look: we'll drive up and see you two. Is Teresa -- all right?" Otto said, reflexively, "Teresa's fine. She's good. And we don't want company." Then, "She's resting, she's out on the sleeping porch, and she's all right. Au Sable was her idea, she always loved it." Mitchell said, groping, "But -- you're so remote." Otto said, "That is the idea, Mitchell." He's going to hang up. He can't hang up. Mitchell was trying to stall, asking how long they'd been there, and Otto said, "Since Sunday. We took two days, we did fine. I can still drive." Otto laughed; it was his old anger stirring, his rage. A few years ago he'd nearly lost his driver's license and somehow through a doctor-friend's intervention he'd managed to hang onto it, and that had not been a good thing, that could have been a fatal error, but you can't tell Otto Behn that, you can't tell an elderly man he will have to surrender his car, his freedom, you just can't. Mitchell was saying they'd drive up to visit, they'd leave at dawn next morning, and Otto was curt in rejecting the idea, saying, "We've made our decision, it's not to discuss. I'm glad I talked with you. I can see how this would be going, with Lizbeth. You prepare her however you think's best, OK?" and Mitch said, "OK, but Otto -- don't do anything," he was breathing fast, confused and not knowing what he said, in a sweat, a sensation like something cold and molten pouring over him, "-- too quickly. Will you call back? Or leave a number? Lizbeth win be home in half an hour," and Otto said, "Teresa feels she would rather write to Lizbeth, and you. That's her way. She doesn't like the phone any more," and Mitch said, "But at least talk to Lizbeth, Otto, I mean you can say anything, y'know, any subject," and Otto said, "I've asked you to honor our wishes, Mitchell. You gave your word," and Mitchell thought, I did? When? What word did I give? What is this? Otto was saying, "We left everything in order, at the house. On my desk. Will, insurance policies, investment files, bankbooks, keys. Teresa had to nag me to update our wills. But I did, and I'm damned glad. Until you make out a final will, you just aren't facing facts. You're in a dreamworld. After eighty, you are in a dreamworld and you have to take control of the way the dream's going." Mitchell was listening, but he'd missed the beat. His thoughts crowded and flashed in his head like playing cards wildly dealt. "Otto, right! Yes -- but maybe we should talk more about this? You can offer valuable advice! Why don't you wait awhile and -- we'll drive up to see you, we'll leave at dawn tomorrow, or actually we could leave tonight-" and Otto interrupted, you'd have said rudely if you didn't know the man, "Hey, good night! This call is costing me a fortune. You kids, we love you."
Otto hung up the phone.
When Lizbeth came home, there was a wrong, slightly jarring note: Mitchell on the back terrace, in the dusk; alone, just sitting there, with a glass of something. "Honey? What's wrong?"
"Just waiting for you."
Never did Mitchell sit like this, wait like this, always his mind was engaged, this was something wrong but Lizbeth came to him and kissed his cheek, lightly. A smell of wine. Heated skin, damp hair. What you'd call a clammy sweat. His T-shirt soaked through. Teasing, Lizbeth said, indicating the glass in Mitchell's hand, "You've started without me. Isn't this early?" Strange, too, that Mitchell would have opened this particular bottle of wine: a gift from friends, in fact it might have been from Lizbeth's parents, years ago when Mitchell had been more serious about wine and hadn't had to cut back on his drinking. Lizbeth asked, hesitantly, "Any calls?"
"Not a thing."
Mitchell felt Lizbeth's relief, knowing how she anticipated calls from Forest Hills. Though of course her dad wouldn't usually call until 11 P.M. when the rates went down.
Mitchell said, "It's been quiet all day, in fact. Everyone seems to be away except us."
Their split-level stucco-and-glass house, which Mitchell had designed, was surrounded by leafy birch trees, evergreens, and oaks. It was a created and not a discovered house; they'd shaped it to their will. They'd lived here for twenty-seven years. In the course of their long marriage, Mitchell had once or twice been unfaithful to Lizbeth, and Lizbeth may have been unfaithful to him, in her intense emotions if not sexually, but time had passed, and time continued to pass, like random items in a drawer casually tumbled together their days, weeks, months, and years in the entrancement of adult life; and this was a peaceful confusion, like a succession of vivid and startling dreams which, after you've awakened, you will be unable to recall except as emotions. The dreams were good, but it's good to be awake.
Lizbeth sat on the white wrought iron bench beside Mitchell. They'd had this heavy thing, now weatherworn and chipped after its most recent repainting, forever. "Everyone is away, I think. It's like Au Sable here."
"Au Sable?" Mitchell looked at her, quickly.
"You know. Mom's and Dad's old place."
"Do they still own it?"
"I guess so. I don't know." Lizbeth laughed, and leaned against him. "I'd be fearful of asking."
She took Mitchell's glass from his fingers and sipped from it. "Alone here. Us alone. I'll drink to that." To Mitchell's surprise, she kissed him on the lips. The first she'd kissed him, like that, girlish and bold, full on the lips, in a long time.
Joyce Carol Oates, Well-Organized Woman
From the May-June 2001 issue of Book magazine.
Although Joyce Carol Oates enjoys the occasional pay-per-view boxing match, the sixty-two-year-old author doesn't watch a lot of TV. In fact, before it was announced that Oates's 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys was the first of Oprah's Book Club picks of 2001, she had never even seen the program. With her schedule, there's not much time for channel surfing. Oates spends her days, and often nights, composing novels, poetry, nonfiction and short-story collections -- she has about seventy books to her name. She also writes plays, essays, and book reviews, edits anthologies and Ontario Review, which she and her husband founded in 1974, and teaches creative writing at Princeton University.
We Were the Mulvaneys has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since its golden seal of approval. This is the first time Oates has reached Number One on the New York Times bestseller list, even though she's been churning out books at an extraordinary pace since winning the National Book Award for her novel them in 1970. But if her work has not sailed to the top of the charts, most of it has been critically acclaimed.
"She's a phenomenon," says poet Daniel Halpern, her editor at Ecco Press. "It makes a lot of people nervous, especially other writers, that she produces so much. But what should make them nervous is not the quantity but the quality of the work that comes out. She amazes me, that book after book is of such a high level."
How could anyone be this productive, particularly considering that she writes everything, novels included, in longhand first before transferring words to type? Oates says she doesn't feel that she is -- she's just well organized.
"My days begin early, and end late," says Oates, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband, Raymond Smith, and two cats. She says she is always thinking of her work, no matter what she's doing. In particular, the story ideas really flow while running, walking, and bicycling. "At such times the imagination floats free, and one can contemplate one's work with an almost magical detachment."
Magically detached or not, Oates still manages to have a rich social life. She attends countless campus events, like dance and theater, travels, and seeks out ethnic restaurants. "She's very sociable," says her close friend, feminist scholar and Princeton professor Elaine Showalter, who marvels at her friend's ability to squeeze in the time to entertain. "She throws several large parties a year and smaller dinner parties, and she goes out to a lot of parties," adds Greg Johnson, author of 1998's Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. "I think it's just that she's a very scheduled and disciplined person whose life is very orderly in the way that most of our lives are not."
While Showalter says that her friend has a wicked sense of humor, Oates exudes a consummate professional's calm, cool demeanor. When she picked up the phone last January and found Oprah Winfrey on the other end, Oates recalls, she wasn't ruffled. "I'm not that emotional," Oates says in her book-filled Princeton office, a movie poster of 1996's Foxfire looming above her head (one of the only movies made from her books). Only the slightest smile betrays her detachment.
Looking at Oates's oeuvre, it's surprising that Winfrey didn't call earlier. In many of her books, Oates has examined how violence can decimate domesticity, particularly in women's lives, a subject Winfrey has been keen on in her selections. From Oates's classic 1966 short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" to 2001's Faithless: Tales of Transgression, she has exposed with sickening realism the danger that can erupt in everyday situations. In 1996's We Were the Mulvaneys, for example, an idyllic family in upstate New York (where Oates grew up) falls apart after their only daughter and sister is raped after a school dance. "I am a chronicler of the American experience," Oates says. "We have been historically a nation prone to violence, and it would be unreal to ignore this fact. What intrigues me is the response to violence: its aftermath in the private lives of women and children in particular."
While Oates may rival other famously prolific authors like Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel in productivity, her narratives are constantly evolving and refuse to gel to any mold. Her characters range anywhere from young schoolgirls and housewives to boxers and rapists to kittens. "She reinvents herself three or four times a year as a writer," Halpern says. "She was a born writer, so she's always had a sense of merit in how to tell a story and draw characters that were different from each other and came alive on the page." He says that the novel Blonde, Oates's 737-page ode to Marilyn Monroe that was a 2000 National Book Award finalist, proves her mastery as a storyteller and reveals her growth as a writer. "The structure of Blonde I don't think she could've written twenty years ago," he says.
The next novel, Middle Age: A Romance, due out in October, takes yet another spin through American existence, but may reflect a kinder, gentler Oates. She suggests that these days she's more idealistic and romantic about writing, and perhaps even about life, than she was decades ago. "Why this is," she says, "I don't know."
She does know that the new novel will be a humorous and loving examination of the lasting friendships of a group of middle-aged men and women. "It's a much more upbeat and positive sort of narrative than people identify with her," Halpern says. "Nothing terrible happens to any of the characters." Well, except for the primary character's drowning at the beginning of the book, he admits, and another character's fatal mauling by his wife's dogs. "Otherwise, it's a happy ending." (Kristin Kloberdanz)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Some of these stories just ended with a fizz. Left me thinking so that is it? Not my favorite collection of short stories but they were decent.
First I normally do not read short stories, but I did not want this book to end! All of the characters were being challenged in some way -- and all were easy to relate to and believable.
Great Stories that examine the deep inner voice of all of us. Very well written!
I love have sex with my dad fp