Book review: “In Rough Country” by Joyce Carol Oates

I don’t usually read books like this, collections of smaller pieces. In this case, six essays and 23 literary reviews.

I call them “literary reviews” rather than “book reviews” because, in them, Oates examines at least a good chunk — and often the entire breadth — of a writer’s work. Her essays deal with the sudden death of her husband after 48 years of marriage; her growing up in and near Lockport, N.Y.; and her life as a prominent author.

I prefer the essays.

The reviews flummoxed me.

They display Oates’s deep knowledge of American literature. (In one of her essays, she estimates that she has read, in part or entirely, “thousands — tens of thousands? — ” of books in her life.) She comments with insight and sensitivity on writers ranging from Cormac McCarthy to Sharon Olds, from Jim Crace to Annie Proulx, from Shirley Jackson to Flannery O’Connor.

My difficulty is that I’ve read maybe one or two works by most of these authors, and none by some. So, often here, I’m getting Oates’s analysis of work of which I know nothing, or next to nothing. It’s like reading a Roger Ebert review of a movie I’ll never see. What good does it do me? Or, better put: It is of limited education for me — a bundle of thoughts dangling in the air, unconnected to anything.

It is true that I have used these reviews as a tip service for books I might read in the future. My order of two novels by Jim Crace (“Quarantine” and “The Gift of Stones”) is a direct result of reading about them in an Oates review. But I pursued them because she only gave them a glancing mention.

I wasn’t moved to track down many others about which Oates wrote extensively, usually describing in detail the plot and ending as well as providing meaty excerpts.

Generally, I don’t like starting a novel knowing how it ends. I like to watch the story unfold and, it seems to me, to honor the work of the writer who put incidents and descriptions in a particular order.

My other difficulty with the book — my difficulty, I emphasize — is this: I would never have read this book on my own. It was a book club choice. So I gritted my teeth and worked my way through it from front to back.

But I suspect that people who enjoy a book like this don’t approach it in that way. I suspect they dip in here and there, now and again, maybe reading reviews of works they’re familiar with and leaving the others for later, not looking at the others until and unless they get around to reading the books that are their focus.

At least, that’s how I imagine they approach a book like this.

It seems to me that, in reading this book from cover to cover, I wasn’t doing Oates justice. For me, her insights on writer after writer after writer after writer started to run together like printing several pages of text on the same sheet of paper.

Reading the few essays in this book, I began to get a mental picture of Oates as a thinker and as a person. Something was happening for me. She as the writer and I as the reader were linking in the mysterious way of literature.

In the reviews, the authors and works that were her subject matter got in the way, got in between me and Oates. She was there, but so was McCarthy or O’Connor or Jackson.

So, given who I am, the experience of reading this book was unsatisfying.

I am not the sort of person for whom the book was created. And I read the book the wrong way.

Not much else to say.

Patrick T. Reardon

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