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ISSUE 118 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/1/2004

Oates' 'Falls' into place

By Andrea Horbinski
Staff Writer

Friday, October 1, 2004

It becomes clear quite early in the prolific Joyce Carol Oates' newest novel, "The Falls," that the book is as much about a fall, and Niagara Falls the city, as it is about the geological marvel.

We enter the story in 1950, when a distraught young man throws himself over Niagara Falls the morning after his wedding. His wife Ariah, who has no love for him anyway, waits seven days and seven nights for his broken, decomposition-swollen body to surface from the Devil's Hole, a gigantic whirlpool at the base of the Falls.

Oates makes it clear that both husband and wife consider his suicide her fault, another fall of man; indeed, as Ariah announces to a bemused concierge at her hotel, "I am damned."

For most writers, this would be enough for one novel, but for National Book Award-winner Oates, it is merely a prologue. Ariah's first marriage to Gilbert Erskine, a minister and repressed homosexual, is quickly forgotten when Ariah meets and marries Dirk Burnaby, a bon vivant bachelor of Niagara Falls, the city, in a whirlwind romance.

Over the course of their marriage they have three children, Chandler, Royall, and Juliet, and though their happiness diminishes in predictable fashion, it is not until Dirk agrees to take on a class action lawsuit representing residents of what will become known as Love Canal that their life together is shattered; Oates spends the rest of the novel examining the consequences of Dirk's act of conscience.

Love Canal, of course, was the Niagara Falls housing development and public school infamously built on a toxic waste dump. In real life, the hideous betrayal committed by the city government and the chemical companies did not become known until 1978. Oates, however, does a wonderful job transposing events and personages back to 1961. For Dirk Burnaby, the crux of the suit is that Nina Olshaker, an attractive Love Canal homeowner with whom he becomes dangerously over-involved, represents the class action plaintiffs. Though his relationship with Olshaker remains platonic (at least on his side), Ariah sees his taking the case as fulfillment of her prophecy that he will abandon her one day, and throws him out. Meanwhile, the Niagara Falls elites exact a heavy price for Dirk's "betrayal of his class."

The remainder of "The Falls" is narrated in 1978 from the viewpoint of Dirk's three children, who each come to terms with their father's absence in their lives as well as their mother's omnipresence. While Royall and Chandler, now young men, must choose how best to live up to Dirk's legacy, Juliet, still a teenager, wrestles both with the siren call of the Falls and with the temptation to take a pyrrhic vengeance for her father.

The novel certainly isn't hurting for scope. Oates tackles issues of class, industrialization, politics, environmentalism and religion, as well as the intricate emotional lives of the Burnabys, and for the most part she succeeds brilliantly. Characters' actions and attitudes echo each other across the generations marvelously, and Oates illuminates sensitively the history and attitudes of the chemical company owners and city governments, rendering them understandable, if indefensible. Indeed, all Oates' characters are laser-etched, although the women tend to idiosyncrasy, and this reader found Ariah generally infuriating in her (entirely plausible) obstinacy.

"The Falls" is not perfect. Oates plays with metaphorical and imagistic conceits throughout the novel, even quoting the famous closing line of "The Great Gatsby" at one point, but her failure, or refusal, to stick with just one results in a certain lack of symbolic cohesion. Events occasionally lapse into melodrama, and she sometimes invests trivialities with far too much obvious symbolic significance. Finally, there is a palpable loss of energy right before the advent of the Love Canal case, when the novel feels as if Oates is just phoning it in. Still, these small faults are forgivable. Oates' phoning it in is better than many lesser writers' best efforts, and overall her fluent prose exerts as much mesmerizing force as the Falls themselves. Cumulatively, "The Falls" is hard to resist, just as it's impossible to swim against the Niagara's current.

Dirk's haphazard redemption when his family cannot do so, though they accept it wholeheartedly. If this redemption is, at best, cold comfort, Oates perhaps, and certainly Ariah herself, would say that cold comfort is all one can expect in a fallen world. Given that the real Love Canal has been declared "safe" and repopulated under the name Black Creek Village, the question must be asked: what was accomplished? As a woman of letters, Oates renders a nuanced answer in the form of The Falls: not much, perhaps, in the great scheme, but now, more than enough.

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