- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LITTLE BIRD OF HEAVEN

By Joyce Carol Oates

HarperCollins, $25.99, 448 pages

Reviewed by Claire Hopley

When Zoe Kruller’s son finds her murdered in bed in a foul house she shared with her friend Jacky DeLucca, the people of the upstate New York town of Sparta are less than amazed. Zoe and Jacky are cocktail waitresses. In Sparta, that’s a euphemism for prostitute, so possible reasons for her murder are not hard to imagine. But who was responsible? Of her many admirers, Eddy Diehl is the most likely culprit because their affair was lengthy, and he was with her earlier on the night of her death.

On the other hand, her estranged husband Delray had plenty of cause for jealousy and anger. The police haul both of them in, question them for hours, but arrest neither. Some townspeople think Eddy was the culprit; others think Delray, a Vietnam vet with an alcohol problem, must be the one. No one is ever prosecuted for the crime.

Exploring Zoe’s murder and its aftermath in “Little Bird of Heaven,” Joyce Carol Oates shows its effects on Delray and Eddy and their families are wide-reaching and long-lasting. The murder trails violence, addiction, failure and emotional and physical cruelty in its wake. And since this story is told from the point of view of Eddy’s daughter Krista, who was only 11 when her father was fingered as the likely killer, and Zoe’s son Aaron, a couple of years older but even more vulnerable, shattered childhoods compound the sum of pain.

As children, Krista and Aaron lack knowledge of life — though Aaron has more experience than a young teenager should be made to bear. They also lack information about their parents and other adults, so their perspectives are limited. Both uphold their father’s innocence. Delray asked Aaron to tell the police that they had spent the night of Zoe’s murder together, and he unflinchingly maintains the lie. Eddy asked the same favor of his wife Lucille. She refuses. Krista, who adores Eddy, is appalled.

Joyce Carol Oates balances the stories of Krista and Aaron like a waitress balancing an overladen tray, expertly restoring equilibrium when things threaten to slide and shatter. Thus, the whodunit question snakes through “Little Bird of Heaven,” increasing in volume as the novel progresses and readers suspect that neither man murdered Zoe because both loved her.

Detective novels typically provoke this urge to identify the murderer, but despite this similarity — intensified by scenes of violence and corruption — “Little Bird of Heaven” has more in common with the bildungsroman — the novel of education or coming-of-age. Their experience cram Krista and Aaron into tight emotional places where they have little control.

Betrayal, violence and sexual depravity dog their steps. Aaron is physically strong and willing to defend himself with his fists. This combines with the racism he faces as a part American Indian, his lack of schooling and Sparta’s drug culture to threaten him with a life behind bars. Krista is more protected and she does well at school, but drugs, violence and rape threaten her, too.

The gothic experience of being terrifyingly stuck where cruelty and sexual abuse can strike has always attracted Ms. Oates’ attention, and she handles the topic with expertise. In her hands, details often seem hyper-real because they are so precisely imagined and described. The talcum powder sprinkled all over Zoe’s bloodied body is one example.

Whole scenes jump from the page as if painted in neon colors picked out with strobe lights: the fights in the boy’s locker room in Sparta, racial enmities in the girls’ basketball team, sex-for-drugs in back lots and sidings — all are vividly present. Also, Ms. Oates is just as adept at painting human relations, most particularly in the scenes that involve Zoe. Whether she is serving kids ice cream in the dairy where she works, singing with a local bluegrass band, or talking with Eddy, Delray and Jackie, she is always charming, enticing - and hungry for something more than Sparta offers.

Equally compelling is Ms. Oates’ portrayal of Eddy and Delray, and her insight into the minds of teenaged Krista and Aaron, neither of whom is ever less than convincing as they work through their parents’ betrayal and their lost emotional comfort.

All these literary skills make much of “Little Bird of Heaven” compulsive reading. But not by any means all of it; longueurs dull its pages. Ms. Oates’ story is complex but not complicated. Ms. Oates explicates it in both her dramatic scenes and her precise evocation of personality. But she provides too much of both: too many drug deals, too many bar scenes, too many episodes of Krista with her dad, too much of Aaron coping alone, too much of Zoe singing.

Piling on scene after scene of similar events does not add conviction or verisimilitude; it increases readers’ feelings of distaste and pain thus pushing them away — and not to some Brechtian distance that allows greater insight into character or society. One wonders where was the editor who could have red-pencilled some of this and tightened this novel to its advantage.

After long expositions of events first from Krista’s angle then from Aaron’s, the final section, which looks back on the event from the distance of years, has the tightness and therefore, the impact that finally bring the novel to a satisfying conclusion.

And yes, you do find out who killed Zoe.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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