Oates is so prolific—this latest short-story collection joins 16 earlier collections, 23 novels and many volumes of poetry, plays and nonfiction on the sagging Oates shelf—that even her most ardent fans may limit themselves to picking up only every third or fourth book she writes.
This collection is one to go for. At least half of its 25 stories are top drawer, and the others aren't that far down the bureau. All display Oates's sure touch when it comes to providing the details that cut to the heart of a character (in "Morning," a young husband whose wife is having an affair punishes her by leaving the dishes in the sink and the toilet unflushed).
Especially worthy are "The Swimmers," in which an adolescent girl recounts a passionate, ill-fated affair between her uncle and a woman with a past; "The Hair," an incisive portrait of two couples, one gadabout and the other staid; and "Shopping," a dead-on look at a mother and her adolescent daughter on a visit to the mall.
The lesser stories suffer from Oates's familiar penchant for the macabre, her excessive reliance on sudden violent acts to resolve plots, and the occasional overlong sentence crammed with words piled higgledy-piggledy atop each other.
For every maxi-convoluted sentence, though, there are a dozen like this: "Once things begin to go bad in a family they go bad quickly, like fruit that's ripening one hour and rotting the next." Which is why, volume after volume, Oates proves to be a leader in literary quality as well as quantity. (Dutton, $21.95)