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Joyce Carol Oates’ latest is something we know

Special to The Times

Joyce CAROL OATES, it would seem, has never suffered from writer’s block. She has written more than 80 books, including novels, essays, plays, and poetry and short story collections. More than once she has published three books in the same year.

What’s even more remarkable, though, is that the work has been consistently good. That is, if you appreciate the author’s twisted sensibility, her penchant for delving into the more sinister, grotesque side of life.

Her latest, “I Am No One You Know,” is no exception. These 19 stories offer glimpses into the lives of troubled Americans, ranging from the merely dysfunctional to the psychotic.

In “I’m Not Your Son, I Am No One You Know,” two sons visit their father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, at an assisted-living home called Meadowbrook Manor. It begins with their awkward, painful meeting but shifts to one son’s angry memories of a junior high school math teacher who sexually abused him. “I had forgotten that time wasn’t fixed like concrete but in fact was fluid as sand, or water,” he says. “I had forgotten that even misery can end.”

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Most of these stories have a bipolar quality, starting on either an ominous, foreshadowing note or a deceptively tranquil one. “Cumberland Breakdown” begins like this: “Tonight again there’s that buzz-saw feel to the sky at dusk. Coming wind out of the mountains and unnatural heat for October. Like something breathing on you through its nostrils. And the poplars out back shivering. That scratchy whispering to drive you crazy. You turn scared half to death, but there’s nothing.” Of course that nothing inevitably really is something.

“Wolf’s Head Lake” also opens with a dusk sky “marbled with clouds and some of them are dark, heavy, tumescent as skins of flesh ready to burst.” In this brief story, set in the Chautauqua Mountains, Oates foretells danger in staccato sentences: “Each of them has a knife. The kind that fold up. From the army-navy supply store. For hunting, fishing.” Yet she leaves the reader on a precipice, not knowing if violence will be committed.

Even the stories with seemingly banal beginnings don’t stay that way for long: “Had Ryan Voigt guessed that thirteen-year-old Sharon McGregor had a crush on him? Probably. Sure. Lots of girls had crushes on Ryan Voigt.” In this story, “Upholstery,” a woman recalls her naive, flirtatious encounters with Voigt, a man in his early 40s, whose inappropriate behavior with her turned frightening.

“The Mutants” charts a woman’s transition from Midwesterner to hip, successful downtown New Yorker, who “was not only loved, which is a commonplace experience, but beloved. There is a distinction.” The woman believes that the kindness she receives from others, and “the intense good fortune of her professional and personal life, were part of a general bounty shared by all, like the warm autumn air.” In typical Oates fashion, the woman’s carefree life is interrupted, shattered by the catastrophe of Sept. 11. Yet her resilience and optimism remain intact, making the story one of the more hopeful in the collection.

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Not all these stories are marked by obsession, violence or trauma. In “Three Girls,” the narrator describes a snowy evening in 1956, when “we were two NYU girl-poets drifting through the warehouse of treasures as through an enchanted forest.” That warehouse is New York City’s famous Strand bookstore, with its millions of books. The third girl of the title is Marilyn Monroe (whom Oates used as a protagonist in her masterful 700-plus-page novel “Blonde”). The narrator and her friend giddily trail Monroe through the massive store, and she surprises them with a kind, unforgettable gesture.

It’s true that Oates generally seems more interested in covering grim, depraved or violent terrain (often sexual in nature), but even so, she avoids sensationalism or victimizing her characters. She explores the criminal mind with obvious fascination, venturing past any repugnance. Her characters don’t heal completely from trauma, but they do often find some form of redemption or catharsis.

These latest aren’t exactly happy stories, but if they were, they wouldn’t be so interesting. Innocence, sadness, hope, anger, vulnerability and betrayal bump up against each other, creating complex characters whose motives aren’t always admirable but are all too familiar.

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‘I Am No One You Know’

Stories

Joyce Carol Oates

HarperCollins: 290 pp., $24.95

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