cover image The Barrens

The Barrens

Joyce Carol Oates, Rosamond Smith. Da Capo Press, $25 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-7867-0847-5

A serial killer and his pursuer engage in a lurid dance in this overextended psychological thriller written under the name Oates uses for her psycho-dramas (like Double Delight). The novel charts the emotional ruin of Matt McBride, a real estate agent in the upscale New Jersey suburb of Weymouth, where he lives with his attractive wife and their two sons. McBride has been haunted since childhood by the memory of a high school classmate whose body was found ravaged in the desolate Pine Barrens. Now, 20 years later, McBride becomes a suspect in the disappearance of local artist Duana Zwoll, a woman whom McBride knew and admired. Although McBride manages to convince the police of his innocence, he remains wracked by guilt that a second female acquaintance has met a ghastly end. As his marriage slowly crumbles, McBride fixates on finding the killer. He narrows his search to another local artist, the marginally talented yet ghoulishly eccentric Joseph Gavin, whose artwork appears to incorporate human body parts. Could he be the man responsible for the deaths of countless East Coast women in recent years? It's a testament to Oates's skill that the suspense is instant and intense. Her setting, which contrasts Weymouth's chi-chi facade with the tormented lives of its residents, is exquisite, as is her treatment of McBride's personal tailspin. Yet the motivation for his obsessive quest for the killer guilt at being unable to prevent two murders never quite convinces. Nor does the character of Gavin, whose repetitive spiritual rants and egomania bloat the story and make him more a figure of absurdity than a credible threat to human life. (May)