Based on my limited exposure to Joyce Carol Oates’, I would say that her story “Heat” contains some of her best writing. Perhaps that is why she includes it in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, an anthology for which she is editor.
An eleven year-old girl narrates the story that begins with a description of the funeral for two of her classmates, twins Rhea and Rhoda. The rambunctious girls wander onto a neighbor family’s yard where they are murdered by the mentally challenged son. This all happens during an exceptionally hot summer as the title suggests.
The story begins subtly with much detail surrounding the funeral – the girls, the caskets and the mourners. It seems that the disturbing aspects of Oates’ stories that I’ve read have been set in isolation – up until now. Having a semi-detached third party telling this story gives the reader some sense of needed distance (at least needed by this reader). At the same time, the telling of the story puts some perspective on the death and violence (of which Oates appears to be fond) this time around. The reader gains an understanding of how the horror fits into the community and the bigger picture of life itself.
As the twins background gives way to the murder, the narrator gives us this bit of information about herself:
I never dreamt about Rhea and Rhoda so strange in their caskets sleeping out in the middle of a room where people could stare at them, shed tears and pray over them. I never dream about actual things, only things I don’t know. Places I’ve never been, people I’ve never seen. Sometimes the person I am in the dream isn’t me. Who it is, I don’t know.
This eventually leads to the narrator explaining to the reader the details of the twins’ murder – or at least more details than someone would normally have who wasn’t at the scene. Personally, I thought not knowing the details kept the story mysterious and maintained the focus on how the community reacted. However, by the time the story ends with this final line, I would say that Oates manages to pull off what could have been a technical flaw:
I wasn’t there, but some things you know.
As of now, if I needed to recommend a Joyce Carol Oates story, it would be this one.