WE WERE THE MULVANEYS By Joyce Carol Oates; Dutton: 432 pp., $24.95

Families do come apart. Good, solid families, and for all kinds of reasons. Death, drink, betrayal, a sudden reversal of financial status, a whisper of scandal. Some unthinkable thing happens, after which--or so the story goes--nothing is ever the same again. Houses go dark, weeds run rampant, the daytime drinking begins. There, family members tell themselves and others, pointing at calendars, scrapbooks or a photograph, it happened right there.

"We Were the Mulvaneys," Joyce Carol Oates' 26th novel, tells the story of such a defining moment in a family's life. Set in a remote and windy spot in rural upstate New York, the book begins wistfully, "We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?" and then goes on in this nostalgic tone, recounting other and better times, as if of people a generation or so dead and gone. "For most of my childhood as a Mulvaney," our narrator, Judd Mulvaney states, "I was the baby of the family." As if that fact didn't hold true anymore and hadn't for a long time, even though Judd Mulvaney is only 30 years old and is speaking of events that happened to himself and his mother, father and siblings. As if even his position in the family had been blotted out by circumstance and reputation.

Oates is just a fearless writer. Where others tremble and falter, she plunges right in and does not look up or come to shore until the fullest telling of the tale, the most thorough examination of the direst possibilities, the most exacting testing of ordinary assumptions and theories, have been played out. "We Were the Mulvaneys" is yet new testimony to her great intelligence, certainly, but, more important, to her brave heart and her impossibly lush and dead-on imaginative powers. On a more immediate and emotional level, it's an extremely generous book about the limits of love and responsibility. It is a book that, because it fulfills its promise to "set down what is truth," will break your heart, heal it, then break it again every time you think about it.

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