The world Joyce Carol Oates creates in SOURLAND is dark, tense, wintry and hostile. With characteristic style, both lyrical and menacing, her latest collection of short stories draws readers in with mundane circumstances and asks them to experience the fear and desperation of the characters. It is an uncomfortable yet brilliant read.
Victimization, violence, loneliness and uncertainty plague the figures in these 16 stories. Several particular themes emerge: the vulnerability of widows, children at the mercy of unstable adults, and emotional instability. The scenes are at once commonplace and bizarre, and Oates is amazing at capturing the interior emotional lives of people in extreme, violent or frightening situations.
Four stories deal with women who are grieving the deaths of their husbands. In "Pumpkin-Head," Hadley is courted by an awkward young man who offers to help her around the house. But when he shows up with a jack-o'-lantern covering his face and grows increasingly agitated, Hadley realizes his intentions are not benevolent after all. In "Probate," the very recently widowed Adrienne finds herself in a Kafka-esqe courthouse where she is interrogated, strip-searched and detained after her husband's will is found to contain photographs of mutilated bodies. In the titular "Sourland," a widow named Sophie boldly reunites with a college acquaintance in the middle of the Minnesota wilderness only to find him disfigured, angry and violent. Sophie thinks "the surviving spouse" inhabits a space not much larger than a grave." That sense of confinement, isolation, dread and mortality permeates all the stories here. "Death Certificate" shows a different side of widowhood as Yvonne is predatory and brash.
It is not only women who have to face difficult, or even surreal, situations in SOURLAND. "Bonobo Momma" is a look at a strange mother-and-daughter relationship. Adelina is a former fashion model who still uses her striking looks and high-fashion lifestyle to define herself. Her 13-year-old daughter has recently undergone surgery to correct a congenital malformation of the spine. After not seeing each other in nearly two years, the pair spend a strained afternoon together. "Lost Daddy" follows a four-year-old boy and his distressed, out-of-work father on a nightmarish walk through the park. "The Story of a Stabbing," "The Beating," "The Barter," "Bounty Hunter" and "Honor Code" all have child protagonists or are the recollections of adults on defining childhood incidents.
From the affair of a beautiful double-amputee and a married father of two, to the rantings of a young man paranoid that his organs will be harvested without his consent, SOURLAND examines the dangers and heartbreak of loss and the potential for volatility it can create. In a free-wheeling linguistic style married to a taut and compelling tone, the book is the proverbial car wreck you can't help but stare at, straining for a glimpse of grisly reality and gore. The violence and pain here is visceral and the literary achievement high. SOURLAND is a grim and powerful reminder of the fragility of human life and relationships.
--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman