Joyce Oates: Sourland

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Joyce Oates Sourland
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Sourland: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Oates's latest collection explores certain favorite Oatesian themes, primary among them violence, loss, and privilege. Three of the stories feature white, upper-class, educated widows whose sheltered married lives have left them unprepared for life alone. In «Pumpkin-Head» and «Sourland», the widows-Hadley in the first story, Sophie in the second-encounter a class of Oatesian male: predatory, needy lurkers just out of prosperity's reach. In the first story, our lurker is Anton Kruppe, a Central European immigrant and vague acquaintance of Hadley whose frustrations boil over in a disastrous way. In the second story, Sophie is contacted by Jeremiah, an old friend of her late husband, and eventually visits him in middle-of-nowhere northern Minnesota, where she discovers, too late, his true intentions. The third widow story, «Probate», concerns Adrienne Myer's surreal visit to the courthouse to register her late husband's will, but Oates has other plans for Adrienne, who is soon lost in a warped bureaucratic funhouse worthy of Kafka. Oates's fiction has the curious, morbid draw of a flaming car wreck. It's a testament to Oates's talent that she can nearly always force the reader to look.

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Joyce Carol Oates

for my husband Charlie Gross



In late March there’d been a sleet storm through north central New Jersey. Her husband had died several days before. There was no connection, she knew. Except since that time she’d begun to notice at twilight a curious glisten to the air. Often she found herself in the doorway of her house, or outside — not remembering how she’d gotten there. For long minutes she stared seeing how, as colors faded, the glassy light emerged from both the sky and from the Scotch pines surrounding the house. It did not seem to her a natural light and in weak moments she thought This is the crossing-over time. She stared not certain what she might be seeing. She felt aroused, vigilant. She felt apprehension. She wondered if the strange glisten to the air had always been there but in her previous, protected life she hadn’t noticed it.

This October evening, before the sun had entirely set, headlights turned into the driveway, some distance away at the road. She was startled into wakefulness — at first not sure where she was. Then she realized, Anton Kruppe was dropping by to see her at about this time.

Dropping by he’d said. Or maybe she’d said Why don’t you drop by.

She couldn’t see his face distinctly. He did appear to be driving a pickup truck with indistinct white letters on its side. Out of the driver’s seat in the high cab of the truck he climbed down and lurched toward her on the shadowy path — a tall male scarecrow figure with a misshapen Halloween pumpkin for a head.

What a shock! Hadley backed away, not knowing what she was seeing.

The grinning pumpkin-head on a man’s shoulders, its leering cutout eyes not lighted from within, like a jack-o’-lantern, but dark, glassy. And the voice issuing through the grinning slash-mouth in heavily accented English:

“Ma’am? Is correct address? You are — lady of the house?”

She laughed, nervously. She supposed she was meant to laugh.

With grating mock-gravity the voice persevered: “You are — resident here, ma’am? I am — welcome here? Yes?”

It was a joke. One of Anton Kruppe’s awkward jokes. He’d succeeded in frightening Hadley though probably that hadn’t been his intention, probably he’d just meant to make her laugh. It was embarrassing that she’d been genuinely frightened for she had known perfectly well that Anton was coming of course. And who else but Anton Kruppe would show up like this, with a Halloween pumpkin for a head?

Hadley scarcely knew the man. She felt a stab of dismay, that she’d invited him to drop by. Impulsively she’d invited him and of course he’d said yes.

At the co-op, Anton was the most eager and courteous of workers. He was the one to joke with customers, and to laugh at his own jokes; he was boyish, vulnerable and touching; his awkward speech was itself a kind of laughter, not fully intelligible yet contagious. For all his clumsiness you could tell that he was an exceptionally intelligent man. Hadley could see that he’d gone to painstaking trouble carving the Halloween pumpkin-head: it was large, bulbous, weirdly veined and striated, twice the size of a normal man’s head, with triangular eyes, triangular nose, grinning mouth studded with fang-teeth. Somehow, he’d managed to force the thing over his head — Hadley couldn’t quite see how.

“How ingenious, Anton! Did you — carve it yourself?”

This was the sort of inane question you asked Anton Kruppe. For you had to say something, to alleviate the strain of the man’s aggressive-doggy eagerness to please, to impress, to make you laugh. Hadley recalled the previous time Anton had dropped by the house to see her, which had been the first time, the previous week; the forced and protracted conversation between them when Anton hadn’t seemed to know how to depart, after Hadley had served him coffee and little sandwiches made of multigrain bread; his lurching over her, his spasm of a handshake and his clumsy wet kiss on her cheek that had seemed to sting her, and to thrill her, like the brush of a bat’s wings.

“Yes ma’am. You think — you will buy?”

“That depends, Anton. How much…”

“For you, ma’am — ‘no charge’!”

This forced joke, how long would it be kept up, Hadley wondered in exasperation. In middle school, boys like Anton Kruppe were snubbed by their classmates — Ha ha very funny! — but once you were an adult, how could you discourage such humor without being rude? Anton was considerably younger than Hadley, as much as ten or twelve years, though looking older than his age, as Hadley looked younger than her age; he’d been born in what was now called Bosnia, brought to the United States by a surviving grandparent, he’d gone to American schools including MIT yet had not become convincingly American in all those years.

Trying too hard, Hadley thought. The sign of the foreign-born.

In a kind of anxious triumph, sensing his hostess’s exasperation yet determined not to acknowledge it, Anton swung the lurid pumpkin-head down from his shoulders, in his chafed-looking big-knuckled hands. Now Hadley could see that the pumpkin wasn’t whole but only two-thirds of a shell — it had been gutted and carved and its back part cut away — the back of what would be, in a human skull, the cranium. So the uncanny pumpkin-head was only a kind of pumpkin-mask set on Anton’s shoulders and held in place by hand. Yet so lifelike — as the scarecrow-figure lurched up the walk in her direction the face had appeared alive.

Could have sworn, the eye-sockets had glared merrily at her.

“Is good? Is — surprise? ‘Happy Halloween’ — is right?”

Was it Halloween? Hadley was sure it was not. October thirty-first wasn’t for another several days.

“Is for you — Hedley. To set here.”

Flush-faced now and smiling in his shyly aggressive manner that was a plea for her, the rich American woman, to laugh at him, and with him; to laugh in the spontaneous way in which Americans laughed together, mysteriously bonded in their crude American humor. On his angular face and in his stiff-wiry hair that receded sharply from his forehead were bits of pumpkin-flesh and seeds at which Anton wiped, surreptitiously, like a boy whose nose is running, wiping at his nose. Hadley thought If he kisses me he will smell of pumpkin.

Her husband had died and abandoned her. Now, other men would drop by the house.

Anton presented Hadley with the misshapen pumpkin. The damned thing must have weighed fifteen pounds. Almost, it slipped from her hands. Hadley thought it would have served Anton Kruppe right if she’d dropped the pumpkin and it smashed on the brick. No doubt, he’d have offered to clean it up, then.

“Anton, thank you! This is very…”

Their hands brushed together. Anton was standing close beside her. He was several inches taller than Hadley though his posture was slouched, his back prematurely rounded. Perhaps there was something wrong with his spine. And he breathed quickly, audibly — as if he’d been running. As if he were about to declare something — then thought better of it.

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