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A Niagara of a novel


By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco, $26.95, 496 pp


As a fiction writer, Joyce Carol Oates has distinguished herself with an extraordinary output, a keen analysis of the American social fabric, and an emotive, even hyperbolic, style. Whether she's writing about inner-city Detroit or Marilyn Monroe, Oates has a way of ending her sentences with exclamation marks, either figuratively or literally.

Her new novel, The Falls, is true to form, leaving just one point of surprise. Given that she hails from upstate New York and long ago established her mark as an over-the-top writer, why did it take her so long to find a motif in that region's most over-the-top landmark? We're talking, of course, about Niagara Falls, the stunning natural wonder that dumps 6-million cubic feet of water a minute in a constant, gushing roar.

Forty years into her illustrious career, finally _ or rather, finally!!, as Oates' high-strung prose might put it _ the writer has found a copacetic backdrop in one of America's favorite tourist destinations. Oates bumps together some discordant elements of Niagara's history to create a novel of the post-World War II period that portrays a society in flux.

The Falls will feel familiar to readers of another of her recent works, We Were the Mulvaneys. Both cover roughly the same period, depend on a strong sense of place in small towns of the Northeast, and focus on a family in turmoil. But where the earlier book showcased social change and its impact on the farmers Mulvaney, The Falls turns to town folk by the name of Burnaby. In this new novel, twin problems _ political corruption and environmental degradation _ swirl through the plot like eddies around the rocks in a fast-moving stream.

The story opens in 1950 with one couple's honeymoon to Niagara Falls. The bridegroom, an ambitious young preacher and amateur scientist named Gilbert Erskine, makes it through his wedding night and then kills himself with a nosedive into the water. Both he and his bride, the former Ariah Littrell, perceive their marriage as a sham, and for him suicide is the only way out.

Gilbert's act of desperation sets up a standard Oatesian theme: the struggle between the human institutions that maintain social order (in this case, the church) and natural forces (as revealed here by sex and science).

During the grim wait for a body to surface, the shell-shocked Ariah meets Dirk Burnaby, handsome lawyer and descendant of a tightrope walker who made his name crossing the falls. Inexplicably, Dirk is attracted to this pale, fearful woman. He pursues her, they fall in love. Against both their families' wishes, they marry and settle into 1950s-style domesticity.

But Ariah is like Cassandra predicting her own doom. While she gives birth to three children and gives piano lessons, Dirk gravitates toward danger _ a young mother who has become an activist because her subdivision is built on a toxic waste dump that she blames for the loss of her child. Dirk picks up her crusade against Love Canal, but he's a decade too early for public consciousness and a lifetime too soon to win over his wife.

"It's a question of faith, Ariah," Dirk tells her. But she, as keeper of the home, is more clear-eyed:

"You're endangering our marriage. Our family," she says. "You're going outside the family for _ I'm not sure what it is: something you want, and need. We aren't enough for you."

The Falls is a story written with Shakespearean proportions, pitting the power of blood ties against the needs of the individual and the larger community. To Ariah, the once-betrayed bride, family is paramount, even if it means suffocating those she loves. She's not necessarily wrong, but always reactive, a can't-do spirit pushing against the tide of American positivism.

In a career so prolific that this is her 48th novel, it's impossible to call The Falls Oates' fictional masterpiece. Yet, in depicting a paradigm shift that permanently altered this country's political and environmental awareness, The Falls certainly ranks as one of her best.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a critic and writer living in Portland, Ore. With Margo Hammond, she writes the Book Babes columns that appear at and the Good Housekeeping Web site.

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