cover image The Rise of Life on Earth

The Rise of Life on Earth

Joyce Carol Oates. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $16.95 (135pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1171-0

Between her major novels ( Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart ), Oates turns out such tightly focused novellas as I Close My Door Upon Myself and this story of a disturbed woman. Kathy Hennessy finds she loves the ambience of the hospital to which she is brought at age 11 after she and her little sister Nola have been savagely beaten by their alcoholic father, an unemployed metalworker. Their mother has deserted the family. Nola dies. Gradually the reasons for the father's appalling assault become clear as Oates limns a sinister characterization of Kathy. Shunted to foster homes, Kathy appears pitiable until fire kills a family, and only Kathy knows how the blaze began. As the novel's refrain establishes, evil cannot touch her because ``one memory cancels out another.'' As an adult, Kathy outwardly seems a dedicated nurse's aide with an appetite for teen fiction (e.g., Nurse Darlene's First Year ) but shows a disturbing penchant for torrid sexual acts, which she performs on a drug-addicted intern. An author's note acknowledges a ``Nurse's Aide Handbook,'' from which Oates has slyly quarried choice texts (e.g., the proper handling of a corpse) that will do nothing to harm the author's reputation for gothic effects, but which also sheds light on her obsessed protagonist. A controlled stylist, Oates constructs tumbling sentences that careen for pages and carry Kathy inescapably to the narrative's fearful conclusion. (Apr.)