Reviewed By Malena Watrous
Often called the “Dark Lady of American Letters,” Joyce Carol Oates is a controversial figure, simultaneously praised for her prolific versatility and taken to task for a fascination with violence that can seem prurient. In her fiction, violence is often at the root of passion, and passion almost inevitably leads to violence, a tautology and trap that we see again in “Little Bird of Heaven,” Oates’s 57th novel since 1964.
Set in Sparta, a fictional town in upstate New York, the novel explores the unsolved murder of Zoe Kruller, a bluegrass singer with a reputation for sleeping around. After she was strangled in bed, the police repeatedly detained and interrogated her estranged husband, Delray Kruller, and her married lover, Eddy Diehl. The two men were named “prime suspects” in the local paper, but neither was brought to trial. Still, the accusations marked them. The town remains split on which one must have done it. Her cuckolded husband has a clear motive (and he’s targeted for being part Seneca Indian). But their son, Aaron, insists that he was with his father during the murder. Her lover, Eddy, was not home that night, a fact that his scorned wife discloses to the cops after they search her home. She also issues a restraining order against him, forbidding contact with his children. The novel is split too, between Eddy’s daughter, Krista, and Delray and Zoe’s son, Aaron, as both try to make sense of what happened in the years surrounding the murder, and to establish their fathers’ innocence.
“That yearning in my heart!” Krista begins. Although she’s a grown woman, she still pines for her father with the rawness of an abandoned child. She was not even a teenager when Zoe died, and she lost her “Daddy,” as she continuously refers to him. Krista’s narrative, dominating the first half of the book, is riddled with exclamation points, italics and single-sentence paragraphs. The intensity grows wearisome at times, her passion verging on hysteria. But as she becomes an increasingly unreliable character witness, the story grows richer and more layered.