Transcending the stain of sin in ‘Little Bird’

By Julie Wittes Schlack
November 13, 2009

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‘We need to put this behind us, Krista. This ugliness. Like an earthquake, or a flood, you’re in shock but then, you know, you galvanize. You come alive. The idea of the Gospels is - ‘Good news is possible.’ ’’

The speaker is Lucille Diehl. The “ugliness’’ is that Eddie Diehl, her handsome and charismatic husband, is a suspect in the murder of his lover, Zoe Kruller. And the grim and oblivious humor in Lucille’s exhortation is not lost on Krista, her daughter and one of two protagonists in Joyce Carol Oates’ new novel, “Little Bird of Heaven.’’ Krista observes that her mother “spoke with a hard gritty optimism like one grinding away with her teeth at something lodged in her mouth - some careless taking-in of a substance not quite edible, grindable. But she would grind it down, she would swallow it. If you weren’t careful she would make you swallow it, too.’’

Krista tells her story with extensive use of italics. The type is used not just to denote dialogue, but to convey the recurring themes in Krista’s internal monologue, the sights and feelings and spoken words that she keeps revisiting. Ten pages into this book, I remembered why I’d taken such a long hiatus from Joyce Carol Oates. But 50 pages in, sucked into the vortex of Krista’s obsessive ruminating, experiencing her awful life as she does, I also remembered how stunning Oates’ mastery of not only language, but of craft, can be.

Krista, her brother Ben, and their parents live in Sparta, a desolate factory town in upstate New York. Eddie Diehl is a man’s man as well as a ladies’ man. He has managed to climb from the working to the middle class, a former construction worker who is now a manager. Though a devoted father, he is not a faithful husband, and the ebullient Kruller, ice cream scooper by day and sexy country singer by night, is a beacon of life for him in this landscape of abandoned warehouses and overgrown railroad tracks. When he is investigated (though never charged) in Zoe’s murder, Lucille throws him out of the house, bars him from seeing his kids, and sets him off on a doomed mission to clear his name and regain the life he’d worked so hard for.

Zoe, who got pregnant as a teen, is married to Delray Kruller, owner of a body shop on the outskirts of town. Her son is Aaron, a large, powerful, dyslexic boy who has inherited his father’s Seneca Indian features and looks nothing like his blond and luminous mother. Zoe’s drive to be a singer and escape the bleak mundanity of her days leads her away from her husband and son and into a far sadder life.

Every member of both families is vividly rendered through the eyes and voices of Krista and the story’s other protagonist, Aaron. Each must believe in his or her own father’s innocence, and both lose their own innocence as a consequence of their parents’ destructive obsessions.

It is tempting to characterize “Little Bird of Heaven,’’ as so many other Oates novels, as gothic in its gloomy setting and violent events. But at its bountiful heart, this novel is about class, race, and transcending both, the drive of these two doomed youths to reclaim the promise with which everyone is born. Krista and Aaron’s desperation is fueled by guilt and hope, and this excellent novel, while wearying at times to read, righteously immerses us in lives that are far more wearying to live.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.


Ecco, 448 pp., $25.99

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