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Some highs and lows on the 'Lonesome' road with Oates

High Lonesome: Selected Stories 1966-2006
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, 664 pp., $34.95

Yes, she writes too much. The ozone layer is on its last legs. The Yankees will probably win the AL East again this year. So what else is new?

Since the early 1960s, perhaps earlier, a ``sweeping flood" (to quote one of her earliest titles) of short stories, novels, poems, plays, reviews, critical essays, and miscellanea has divided critical opinion over whether Joyce Carol Oates, this paragon of literary energy , is indeed a major writer, or only an inveterate scribbler whose self-confessed ``laughably Balzacian ambition to get the whole world into a book" yields maddeningly mixed results.

The present volume is similarly divided, into 10 previously uncollected recent stories and 25 earlier ones, published from the 1960s through the 1990s and reprinted from several of Oates's collections.

Of the former, three offer variations on countless renderings of the consequences of sexual violence. A mother fears her rigorous disciplinary methods provoked the ``sluttishness" that led to her daughter's rape and murder (``The Fish Factory"). A teenager returning from school fails to realize that her mother has just murdered her father (``In Hot May").

Adolescent paranoia and fragility are efficiently dramatized, however, in the taut account of a lonely high school boy's passive complicity -- and empathy -- with his father's crimes (``Spider Boy") and in a provocative fantasy about a failing student's complex fantasy life (``*BD*11 1 87"). Oates ranges further in the title story, which depicts revenge undertaken on behalf of a hapless aged farmer ensnared in a vice sting, and to more chilling effect in ``The Lost Brother," which skillfully deploys breathless narration and ratcheting suspense in the story of a bereaved woman's brutally disappointed quest for a reunion with her possibly mad older brother.

But why did Oates include ``Fat Man My Love," a tasteless portrayal of unhinged sexuality and the perverse fascination it engenders in an ``Ice Blonde" starlet ? This is fanzine stuff, worthy to stand beside only Oates's forgettable fictionalization of Marilyn Monroe's life in her best selling 2000 novel ``Blonde." The less said about this ludicrously sad story, the better.

Fortunately, there are the earlier stories, the best of which work interesting variations on such preoccupying themes as the meeting of adolescent emotional and sexual energies with adult predation and depravity. The classic example here is the much-anthologized ``Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," in which a teenage girl's attraction to the seedy older man who obviously aims to defile her is balanced teasingly between grim naturalism and the seductive otherworldliness of a folk ballad. It's the one Oates story that Flannery O'Connor might have written.

The pressures of religious conviction are fruitfully analyzed in a heartbreaking story of an English teacher nun's failure to sense the depth of a gifted, troubled student's despair (``In the Region of Ice"); a melodramatic recounting of a suicidal true believer's heartless appropriation by a messianic theologian (``Last Days"); and the abrasively funny tale of a door-to-door evangelist, her innocent young daughter, and the murderous ex-convict whose horrific designs on them backfire ironically (``Mark of Satan").

Ordinary suburban folks get their comeuppances too, in variously compelling depictions of a marriage destroyed by adultery (``The Tryst"); a conventional couple's transformation through their harrowing friendship with another, unstable couple (``The Hair"); a young woman's observations of her uncle's doomed romance with a frail lover ultimately repelled by the energies that drew her to him (``The Swimmers"); and a virginal teenage ``princess's" arduous ``Life After High School," through inhibiting memories of a classmate who may have killed himself out of love for her.

Two thoughtful portraits of writers in extremis distinguish a rich account of a successful American author's trip to a conference in Poland, where echoes of her family's history call up long-suppressed fears and insecurities (``My Warszawa: 1980"); and a pill-popping novelist's descent into the maelstrom of her many successes and failures (``The Dead").

Oates still finds new things to say about the overworked theme of sex's mesmerizing power in the masterly ``Heat," in which the sickening murder of twin sisters unfolds with stunning dramatic implacability.

``High Lonesome" omits several of what this reader would judge Oates's best ( ``First Views of the Enemy," ``The Goddess," and her recent gem ``The Passion of Rydcie Mather"). But this rich volume comes at the right time, late enough in its author's long career to stand as a sampling of her impressively varied wares. And, on balance and in retrospect, it succeeds in reminding us how far this indefatigable chronicler of all our lives has traveled, and how important and necessary it is that we keep on reading her.

Critic Bruce Allen lives in Kittery, Maine.

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