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Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates
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Little Bird of Heaven

by Joyce Carol Oates

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With "Little Bird of Heaven," Joyce Carol Oates returns again to depictions of life in Sparta, N.Y., "the doomed city on the Black River." In this latest offering, the fading blue-collar burg has been rocked by the grisly murder of one Zoe Kruller, a troubled but charismatic country singer with a taste for seedy pleasures.

Zoe was found beaten and strangled in her bed in a run-down apartment on the wrong side of town. Estranged from her husband, she had been living in squalid semi-prostitution, and the feeling among the shabby-genteel townspeople, who are a little too close to Zoe's milieu for empathy or compassion, is that she somehow got what she deserved. The police investigating the crime are certain she died at the hands of her lover or her ex-husband. When the investigation stalls over lack of evidence, however, the murder remains unsolved, effectively casting the families of those involved into an endless purgatory of suspicion.

The fallout from the unhappy woman's demise falls largely on the shoulders of Aaron, her anomic son, and Krista Diehl, the daughter of the local roustabout with whom Zoe was having an affair. Both children believe that the other's father is responsible for the murder, setting up crosscurrents of sin and stain that reverberate throughout the narrative, which jumps back and forth across the passage of two decades in the lives of these death-haunted characters.

This is a powerful novel. Oates's feel for the rhythms of hardscrabble life and its sour mix of alcoholism, suicide, drug abuse, adultery and murder is as keen as ever. In Sparta she has created a fictional universe to stand beside Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Cheever's Shady Hill. Her descriptions of the geography of urban decay -- the rusted bridges, tangled back alleys and trash-strewn lots -- are as vivid as any naturalist's portrayal of more felicitous scenes. Her unsentimental language makes a high-lonesome kind of poetry out of otherwise sordid and unremarkable circumstance.
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This is not to say that "Little Bird of Heaven" is without flaws; its pacing is, shall we say, stately, and at times the author lingers over descriptive passages that could have been dispatched more crisply. A book that starts out as a standard police procedural but fizzles into uncertainty and stasis may be realistic, but it will frustrate readers with more conventional expectations.

By now, however, most readers probably have settled ideas about Oates anyway, and "Little Bird of Heaven" is unlikely to change any minds. Despite her long and prestigious career, in certain circles she suffers from the perception that her superheated realism is not sufficiently literary or experimental. There are three reasons for this canard:

The first is the staggering volume of Oates's output. While some of her work can feel either rushed or recycled, it is worth noting that James, Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope, to name a few, produced an equivalent amount of fiction. But critics, especially male ones, are in love with the idea of the author as heroic artiste, a reclusive mystic whose triumphal verbal artifacts are the product of a decade or more of tortured cogitation. This is a purely 20th-century invention. The idea that writing is a craft, that it is work and, like baking or washing dishes or painting houses, can be done daily and well, is anathema to the hoary "great man" theory of literature.

The second reason for the disdain Oates sometimes provokes is that she eschews postmodernism gamesmanship, and it is difficult to think of a writer less burdened with irony -- the kudzu vine of contemporary fiction. Fashion aside, novels like "Little Bird of Heaven," with its mixture of the Gothic and the fatalistic, mark Oates as our closest contemporary analogue to Hawthorne: lyrical, moral, unforgiving.

And finally, there's the poverty, economic and intellectual, of Oates's subjects. Like everyone else, literary critics enjoy reading about characters who resemble themselves, but Oates's narratives are markedly free of eccentric academics, hipster smart-alecks and entry-level publishing ingenues. For Raymond Carver or Cormac McCarthy to write scenes with unshaven characters drinking from the bottle in boardinghouse rooms with stained and faded floral wallpaper registers as noble and bitter and true. To do so as a woman, as a spiritual descendant of Austen and Woolf and Wharton, however, looks to the inflexible-minded as slightly out of focus, as though she were slumming or trying to be something she's not. But Oates's refusal to write soggy family sagas or dating-life confessionals is its own form of toughness. What else would you expect her to do? She's the original Girl From the North Country.

From the Washington Post, September 13, 2009 ( )
  MikeLindgren51 | Aug 7, 2018 |
In one word, AWFUL. I only finished the book because I thought the mystery night be solved at the end. It wasn't really, the author introduced a completely new character on the last page. I think she was just as keen to finish the book as I was. ( )
  lesleynicol | Sep 25, 2016 |
There's no doubt Joyce Carol Oates is a terrific writer. However, I ( )
  Judy_Ryfinski | Jan 20, 2016 |
There's no doubt Joyce Carol Oates is a terrific writer. However, I ( )
  Judy_Ryfinski | Jan 20, 2016 |
Oates has done better, but it's not a bad read. Good plot, less than likable main characters, and it dragged to a conclusion. Three-hundred pages would have sufficed (instead of 442). Quoting an old editor of mine, "Edit ruthlessly." ( )
  VashonJim | Sep 6, 2015 |
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Den intressanta berättelsen som skulle kunna öppna för många perspektiv försvinner i ordmassorna, där praktiskt taget allt skall med, på det där nästan maniska sättet som präglar Oates när hon inte kan hejda sig. Men jag ser fram emot nästa roman av Oates och hoppas att hon då är i bästa form.
added by Jannes | editSvenska Dagbladet, Mats Gellerfelt (Nov 22, 2010)
 
“Little Bird of Heaven” starts with the urgency of a thriller, then turns into something more existential as the years (and pages) go by with no developments in the case. This is a tragedy on a classical scale.
 
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When a young wife and mother named Zoe Kruller is found brutally murdered, the Sparta police target two primary suspects, her estranged husband, Delray Kruller, and her longtime lover, Eddy Diehl. In turn, the Krullers' son, Aaron, and Eddy Diehl's daughter, Krista, become obsessed with each other, each believing the other's father is guilty until they meet again as adults, ready to exorcise the ghosts of the past and come to terms with their legacy of guilt, misplaced love, and redemptive yearning.… (more)

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