Joyce Carol Oates’ new collection portrays the darkness and longing in people searching for connection

“Lovely, Dark, Deep” by Joyce Carol Oates
“Lovely, Dark, Deep” by Joyce Carol Oates

The roadside shrine is like so many: plastic flowers wound on the cross, silver foil, laminated photographs.

“And hanging from the crossbar is one of my sneakers — size 12, Nike.”

Note the “my.”

Joyce Carol Oates is back with her latest collection, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” which has a little bit of everything — characters spanning ages, classes and experiences. She has a reputation for being prolific, producing at least one book every year for most of her career.

Teenagers grapple with death for the first time, dates turn nightmarish, an adulterous relationship begins and ends with an antique clock, and a couple becomes consumed with another family in the neighborhood. Although the characters and situations vary, a common but powerful thread remains — the darkness and longing in people searching for connection.

In “Forked River Roadside Shrine, South Jersey,” forever-17-year-old Kevie now haunts the place of his fatal car wreck where family and friends have built a roadside shrine. Fragments of his life mingle with the hodgepodge of people visiting his shrine.

They range from former teachers; to girls from his high school taking cellphone photos; to his grieving, flawed mother; to his younger brother, Teddy, who bikes out to the site and reminds Kevie of his failures. Teddy also brings Kevie hope that his little brother might go down a different road, so to speak.

As the shrine becomes more overgrown, damp and forgotten, his ghost begins to shed some of his anger and gains the wisdom he didn’t have during his life. His “spirit is being refined. Like in the quarry, the marble is removed from the rock surrounding it.”

“Lovely, Dark, Deep” begins with a young English instructor, Evangeline Fife, interviewing Robert Frost at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1951 when Frost is 77 years old. Published in Harper’s Magazine last November, it garnered negative comments for perpetuating the “monster myth” that has haunted Frost since Lawrance Thompson, a onetime disciple turned biographer, fiercely ripped him.

In a postscript, Oates states that it is “a work of fiction, though based upon (selected) historical research.” Admittedly the early portrayal of Frost in the story is not flattering. He is unattractive egomaniac with a “torso that sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were a middle-aged woman’s fleshy thighs.” He is lewd to the point of bullying, repeatedly asking about the state of Fife’s panties.

Fife, early on, is the quintessential naive interviewer, with few hints that she is something much more. Fife lobs easy questions to presumably “draw from the poet quotable quotes.”

Once Fife gets the quotes she needs, her line of questioning becomes “a sharp little blade, to be inserted into the fatty flesh of the poet, between the ribs” and the interview turns into an unwilling interrogation, almost a dissection of the man. Frost’s “breath came audibly and harshly. You could sense the old, enlarged heart beating in his chest like a maddened fist as in the throes of a combative sexual encounter at which the poet in his inviolable maleness did not intend to fail.”

The narrator morphs into something closer to a demon from Frost’s imagination. The reader will have to decide whether Oates’ depiction of Frost is fair, but no one can deny it is interesting.

“Patricide” is by far the longest and the sole story in the fourth section. It features Lou-Lou, who cares for her capricious elderly father, Roland Marks, a literary genius. Although he was married and divorced five times, Lou-Lou’s “fate was, Roland Marks had always loved (her) best of all his children.”

Enter Cameron, a 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate who “shivered with the intensity of an Italian greyhound.” As Roland’s assistant, she begins to replace Lou-Lou in his life. Lou-Lou’s jealousy translates into an obsession with tending to his empty home when he and Cameron travel, causing her own career as a university dean to disintegrate.

With a title of “Patricide,” predictably Roland dies. In the absence of his overwhelming presence comes a changing relationship between Lou-Lou and Cameron that becomes the most surprising and satisfying.

Ten stories, structured into four sections, have a range of subjects and points of view while at the same time probing the innate insecurity in the lives of ordinary people, particularly ordinary people in the shadow of those society deems geniuses.

In the first half the stories seem only tangentially related, but midway through there is a clarity of vision that make it impossible to set aside.

For readers who are already familiar with Oates, this book will not disappoint. For readers who are looking for an introduction, this collection is difficult to dive into but gains momentum to a satisfying finish.

Lovely, Dark, Deep, by Joyce Carol Oates (420 pages; Harper Collins; $25.99)