Let those who complain that Joyce Carol Oates writes too much be silent: even her bad stuff is interesting. And her latest, The Falls, is her best novel since We Were the Mulvaneys. Like that memorable book, The Falls concerns the rise, fall(s) and reconstruction of a family in upstate New York. The Oatesian themes are all here: the terrible cost of even the smallest happiness, the degradation of being female, the deadly struggle between the powerful and the powerless.
The Falls spans from the early '50s to the late '70s, and begins with a calamity. Ariah Erskine's husband jumps from Niagara Falls only hours after their likely unconsummated wedding night at a resort hotel. Ariah seems to be another of Oates' nearly somnambulistic child-women, and we almost don't wonder why her equally neurasthenic husband tossed himself into the Falls. But during the wait for the whirlpool to disgorge his body, Ariah meets and falls in love with Dirk Burnaby, an idealistic young lawyer, and almost blossoms. They marry, have children, grow prosperous, and then, under the pressure of so much abundance, everything goes to smash. Bearing and raising children drain and coarsen Ariah, and the bewildered Dirk throws himself into one of the first Love Canal pollution lawsuits. This ruffles the feathers of some local bigwigs, and the consequences of his zeal are disastrous. Years pass before the three Burnaby children the saintly Chandler, the ironically named Royall, and the sad and vulnerable Juliet find a tentative healing.
Oates knows the Niagara Falls area down to its molecules: the way little rainbows come and go in the spray of the cataract, and the weird spell it casts to draw people to their ruin. She knows the smells, textures and habits of both wildflowers and toxic ooze from dumpsites. One could say that Niagara Falls is the book's most compelling character. Powerful, compassionate and ruefully humorous, The Falls is another example of Oates' inexhaustible brilliance.
Arlene McKanic lives in Jamaica, New York, but has never visited Niagara Falls.