Little Bird Of Heaven, the latest from the always hyper-productive Joyce Carol Oates, is so obviously a novel written to get to its last 10 pages that it sometimes suffers along the way. Those final 10 pages are a terrific evocation of what it means to be confronted again by childhood, and to decide what to do about it once and for all, but along the way, Oates frequently pauses to wander down rabbit trails that interest her. Some end more successfully than others.
The 448-page novel starts by describing the death of a beautiful woman whose life took a few wrong turns. Zoe Kruller was a wannabe musician, a seductress, and an adulterer, and when she dies, suspicion falls on her estranged husband, Delray, and her longtime boyfriend, Eddy Diehl. Oates never offers the real, full story here; instead, she offers bits and pieces that add up to a larger whole, filtered through the childish perspectives of the Krullers’ son, Aaron, and Diehl’s daughter, Krista.
Though the portion told through Krista is fantastic at painting how young children grasp details around the edges rather than the full picture, it also has a bad habit of making the older Krista (who narrates) sound less like the 32-year-old she is and more like an elderly woman reflecting on her childhood. The Aaron section is more wholly successful in building a believable voice, embodied by Aaron’s more malevolent self, whom he calls Krull.
Not everything in Little Bird Of Heaven works. The resolution of the Zoe murder mystery is perfunctory at best. An overstretched monologue from a minor character tells readers a lot of things they already know. A portion mostly from Eddy Diehl’s point of view never gets into his head in a meaningful way, while his wife—Krista’s mother—is a too-easy villain. But those things, like Krista’s memory, crowd around the edges of the novel, while its core story is well-told and ultimately powerful.
As with most Oates novels, Little Bird Of Heaven is all about the accumulation of detail, the way tiny events add up to epic tragedies in a small town. Though the novel takes a while to get going, at some point around its midpoint, it makes clear that the demons that tormented Delray Kruller, Eddy Diehl, and their children were almost inborn in the minor town of Sparta, New York. Oates refers to Sparta (which takes on an increasingly post-apocalyptic feel as the story moves from the 1980s to the present day) as “doomed,” and it’s hard to disagree. Everyone in the story is trying their best to break with the awful knowledge of the past, but they’re all failing, dragged down by the people and places that hold them ever-tortured and firmly in place.