Oates's new mystery; Mysteries of Winterthurn, by Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton. 482 pp. $16. 95.
It seems to me an indication of confused priorities that Joyce Carol Oates is best known for her remarkable (and, to some, suspicious) productivity: In 20 years she has published more than 35 books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, besides laboring regularly, and well, as editor, anthologist, reviewer, and teacher. Those numbers are, to be sure, attention-getting.Skip to next paragraph
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If she produces all this work so easily, her detractors argue, how can it be any good? Well, who says it's easy? Maybe Oates simply works twice as hard as most other writers and sticks more diligently to each successive task at hand. (One assumes she doesn't belong to a bowling league, or attend Tupperware parties.) Anyway, readers familiar with the careers of Balzac or Henry James, not to mention Trollope, should be able to respect and appreciate what she continues to accomplish.
Furthermore, her fiction displays real rhetorical skill - although there's some truth to reviewers' claims that her style is occasionally slapdash. And, in my opinion, what's most remarkable about her oeuvre is its range and variety.
Her early stories, and novels such as ''A Garden of Earthy Delights'' (1967) and the award-winning ''Them'' (1969), are vivid, ambitious portrayals of displaced and dispossessed persons, reminiscent of Dreiser, Steinbeck, and Faulkner, heavily laden with violence and melodrama. Her analyses of such professions as me-dicine, law, and politics include intriguing books like ''Wonderland'' (1971) and ''Do With Me What You Will'' (1972) - and also the two novels that seem to me easily her worst, ''The Assassins'' (1975) and the chaotically written ''Angel of Light'' (1981). Oates has tried her hand at academic satires (''The Hungry Ghosts,'' ''Unholy Loves''), supernatural fiction (''Night-Side and Other Stories''). In her volume ''The Goddess & Other Women'' (1974), she has produced what I'd call one of the classics of contemporary feminist fiction.
In recent years, she has been experimenting with elaborate pastiches of 19 th-century novels. These include her amusing sendup of the family saga, ''Bellefleur'' (1980), and its ebullient successor, ''A Bloodsmoor Romance'' ( 1982), in which the fortunes of an eccentric extended family are shaped into a witty commentary on American ingenuity, imperialism, and injustice. And in its sardonic emphasis on men's utter ignorance of what women are really like, ''Bloodsmoor'' is, really, a rather subversive book.
Continuing to mine this promising narrative vein, Oates now gives us a ''period'' detective story, in three parts, set in the fictional Winterthurn City in upstate New York near the turn of the century. It is told in an ornate, hyperbolic style by a narrator who digresses, fusses, and lectures readers relentlessly.
Part 1, ''The Virgin in the Rose-Bower,'' involves teen-age (self-styled) ''detective'' Xavier Kilgarvan with a horrific murder committed at the ancestral home of his estranged relatives. The story begins most amusingly, with a choleric spinster's unaccountable purchase of 50 pounds of quicklime. Before the mystery is solved, we've become acquainted with a reclusive poetess and a senile epistemologist who forsakes philosophy for his ''fancy woman,'' among other vivid personalities. We are also made privy to Xavier's unrequited infatuation with his 12-year-old cousin, the enchanting, quixotic Perdita.
In Part 2, ''Devil's Half-Acre,'' which occurs 12 years later, Xavier solves a series of murders of factory girls by rejecting the entire city's conviction that the despised Jew Isaac Rosenwald is the culprit, and pursuing the jaded aristocrat whom he alone suspects. The ensuing complications involve a right-wing racist cabal known as the Brethren of Jericho, and the mystery's frustrating conclusion leaves the elusive Perdita still bafflingly beyond the faithful Xavier's reach.