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Carthage

By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco/HarperCollins

496 pages, $26.99

By Stephanie Shapiro

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

It’s only normal that your hand jumps back from a hot surface even before the brain can register the burn. And, using only words, Joyce Carol Oates makes the unsuspecting reader recoil, before the horrors on the page have sunk in.

Then, half in doubt of what her words mean, comes the realization that she has in fact written what she seemed to have said. But in “Carthage,” Oates’ new bombshell disguised as a small-town chronicle or a cousin of, say, “Winesburg Ohio,” she demonstrates restraint. “Carthage” doesn’t have to overdo gore, shock and disfigurement of body and soul, because she knows how to make a little go a long way.

One of those towns named after places from history and mythology, Carthage provides a bland backdrop to the physical and psychological mayhem triggered when Cressida Mayfield, 19, disappears. The severely wounded and disfigured Iraq War vet Brett Kincaid gets 20 years in Dannemora after confessing to murdering Cressida, destroying the marriage plans of Brett and his fiancee, Cressida’s elder sister Julie. Canceling the wedding becomes important for some characters.

The Shakespearean-named sisters’ parents are Zeno and Arlette Mayfield, he a former mayor of Carthage, she the classic wife. They deal with events as best they can: subjected to a houseful of reporters and police officers, “Arlette offered her visitors refreshments, for she knew no other way to deal with people in her house.” Zeno suffers some sort of “medical emergency,” perhaps a heart attack, perhaps not, with “A harsh serrated breathing, as if briars were caught in his throat.”

The eye of this swirling psychological hurricane, the decorated veteran Kincaid, meanwhile, isn’t sure what he is confessing to. He distantly remembers the death of a young woman, very young, but unclear as to whether it’s Cressida or someone else. Someone in Iraq? His brain is so scrambled that he thinks he’s confessing to atrocities committed by his unit overseas.

He thinks he may or may not have led authorities to suspect his buddies of war crimes, after which the soldiers set off an explosion causing Kincaid’s wounds, meticulously detailed by Oates. The upshot – he’s welcomed home, feted, honored at home as a war hero.

His diagnosis is “Neurologically impaired – ‘retrograde amnesia’ – incapable of remembering with any degree of clarity, accuracy, confidence what had/had not happened …”

“Carthage” is no small-town soap opera. It has higher aspirations: think “Crime and Punishment” translated into plain English, although Oates has not discussed the matter. The classical place names, Shakespearean names for the “radiant” Juliet and “difficult” Cressida, even the father named Zeno, evoke vague memories of times long vanished. Ancient history class or Latin class taught that the orator Cato demanded, “Carthage must be destroyed,” in every speech he made to the Roman Senate. The town in this neutron bomb-ish novel isn’t destroyed, but the characters’ lives are wrecked and plowed under with salt. (Remember the neutron bomb kills people but doesn’t damage buildings.

Joyce Carol Oates’ literary craftsmanship won’t let her create cookie-cutter characters. She even throws in some Adirondacks Hell’s Angels to muddy the narrative a little, adds an oddball professor (how many has she known in her long decades in academe?) with ties to Cornell, whose books describe travels around the country exposing experiments on animals, “boot camp” abuse of teenage delinquents, that sort of thing. And more.

In “Carthage,” Oates put together a masterpiece demonstrating Rule No. 1 for writers: Show, don’t tell. Her 70-some books, including more than 40 novels, have provided enough practice for her to perfect the technique. Don’t say someone did such and such. Have a character think about or converse about or draw a picture about what he knows regarding the such and such.

Thus, she creates atmosphere with relentless detail – gnats, just clouds of gnats, for example – but so thick, so numerous that they inflict various discomforts and ultimately make it impossible to breathe without inhaling gnats.

That’s only the beginning of her spell. Like the painters – pointillists, who create colors by making hundreds, thousands of variously hued dots, Oates plants a hint here, a suggestion there, a half-remembered – or was it half-imagined? – memory, piling them up, overlapping them to create atmosphere, emotion and yes, horror.

But lest anyone miss the point, she resorts to watering down Rule No. 1: “It came to her that wars were monstrous, and made monsters of those who waged them.” And Kincaid and the others have become monsters. The sentence tells, but in all fairness, Oates orchestrates the entire novel to show. Turning out a novel or two a year has given her plenty of practice. After developing her voice over that long and award-studded career, she has considered retiring from teaching at Princeton a year or so from now, somewhere around her 77th birthday, but it’s hard to imagine her not producing a book a year.

With the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature going to Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro, there’s a question of how that might affect Oates’ chances for the award. But Nobel laureate or not, Joyce Carol Oates has provided the world with a body of work that is keeping scholars busy for years to come. She herself shows no sign of letting up.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.