I first discovered Joyce Carol Oates about ten years ago, when I read one of her short stories (“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” It’s a MUST read, by the way). I fell in love with her stories and novels because of the subject matter; Oates’s novels usually deal with obsession usually of the sexual kind (them is a perfect example of this). Oates’s novels are always dark and gritty, never easy reading but somehow satisfying nonetheless. Little Bird of Heaven is Oates at her best.
The setting is a working-class town in upstate New York (typical Oates) in the 1980s. The story isn’t told linearly, but unfolds gradually over time. Some of the information we’re given is repeated, but each time the story is told from a different point of view. Krista Diehl is the daughter of Eddy Diehl, suspected of but never charged with the murder of a local singer named Zoe Kruller, with whom he was romantically involved. On the other side of the coin is Aaron Kruller, the woman’s son. Both he and Krista become obsessed with the murder of his mother—and, by extension, with each other, in a weird way. The first half of the book is told from Krista’s perspective, the second from Aaron’s.
Part of the beauty of Oates’s novels is a common theme that runs throughout: obsession. Krista and Aaron are of course obsessed with Zoe Kruller’s murder; Eddy Diehl is obsessed with clearing his name and having his life returned to normal. Another thing I loved about this book is the not-knowing; the reader never really knows until the end for sure who killed Zoe Kruller, and that’s part of what kept me turning the pages. And yet Eddy Diehl certainly does keep acting guilty, doesn’t he? I certainly think he does feel guilt, in a way, but maybe he didn’t really do it?
Another thing I love about Oates’s novels is her prose. I’m pretty sure that, if you plugged one of her sentences into Microsoft Word, it would flag that sentence as a run on; but Joce Carol Oates’s writing is pure poetry. She breaks the rules of writing in a way that only she can. Sure, she does use a fair bit of profanity, which can be a bit disturbing. It’s also exhausting at times to read, but well worth the effort of doing so. The only thing I didn’t really get was Aaron Kruller’s voice, especially as a child; I doubt that a boy of eleven, especially one with a bad reputation, would call his parents “Mommy” and “Daddy.” Also, Oates goes a little bit overboard on the Elvis comparisons (it seems that a lot of people in Sparta, New York look like him!) But other than that, I highly recommend this book.