The narrators of this latest trip to the bleak landscape of upstate New York by the prolific Joyce Carol Oates are an angry young man whose mother is murdered and a shy, introspective young woman whose father is a suspect. But the character who leaps most off the page is the victim, Zoe Kruller.
Zoe's life and death are the source of the story in "Little Bird of Heaven." She abandons her son, Aaron, and her husband, Delray. She has an affair with Eddy Diehl, whose daughter Krista finds life in their small town of Sparta almost impossible to bear.
And singing with her band, the Black River Breakdown, she wears spangly outfits, enchants the townspeople and belts out the song that gives the novel its title:
"Fallen hearts and fallen leaves
Starlings light on the broken trees
I find we all need a place to land
There's a little bird of heaven right here in your hand."
Krista and Aaron meet as teenagers. He's a gruff, rough, half-Indian guy with tattoos and little use for school. She is a blond waif, trying to tough it out on the basketball court to win the affection of her daddy and the respect of her peers.
But it is her longing for Aaron that rules her life, particularly after Zoe Kruller is found murdered.
Her death seals their connection forever, even though they rarely speak and, when they are together, the conditions are as far from romantic as you can get.
Oates deftly merges the personalities of Zoe, Eddy, Krista and Aaron into what is essentially a mystery: Who killed Zoe Kruller? Was it Eddy? Was it her estranged husband, Delray? Was it Aaron, who found the body? Was it someone else?
But with Oates, no narrative could be a straight detective story. The interior monologues of Krista and Aaron, in their respective portions of the book, show the novelist at her brooding best.
In some of her novels, Oates and her characters can come across as overwrought, but "Little Bird of Heaven" shows a measure of restraint that makes the story and the character studies complement each other.
The result is a seamless, satisfying tale of small-town life where, as Krista puts it at one point, the long-smoldering relationships among the residents can often be like "tangled roots, beneath the surface of the earth."
After so many novels and so many young girls suffering silently in their small towns, Oates continues to deliver. And if she continues true to form, the next tale won't be far behind.
Dale Singer, a writer and editor at the Post-Dispatch for more than 28 years, is on the staff of the St. Louis Beacon.