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'Lonesome' folks are compelling

HIGH LONESOME: NEW AND SELECTED STORIES, 1966-2006, Ecco, 664 pages, $34.95.

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most diverse authors writing today. She has become famous as a novelist and poet and has produced 25 volumes of short stories. This hefty "High Lonesome" collection contains 26 stories from the 1960s through the '90s, as well as 10 new stories from the 21st century.

Oates always seems best when building a character, and her stories can be enjoyed as much as character sketches. The recent stories here are the most interesting in the collection because they indicate how the super mind of this unique writer is working currently, although the stories are not starkly different from those of the '60s.

She seems pretty consistent, especially in her treatment of people who live on the border of sanity or the law. Most of her characters are just a little off-center, such as Pop Olafsson in the title story (a new one). He is a "fattish bald guy with a face like a wrinkled dish rag left in the sun to dry. Palest blue eyes and a kind of slow suspicious snaggle toothed smile like he was worried people might be laughing at him."

And he talks in a "weird singsong voice like his nose is stopped up." He wears "bib-overalls over a sweat-stained undershirt with long grimy sleeves."

In "Soft Core," another recent story, two middle-aged sisters, Esther and Maggie, consider the things their father left when he died. As a physician, Dr. Hewart was a dominant force in Strykersville. It is clear that Esther has bad feelings about Maggie, even before Maggie shows her some things she has found in the bottom of a desk drawer in the doctor's home office. "I think he must have forgotten them," Maggie says. She is talking about some old photos of Elvira Sanchez, a cleaning woman, in various nude poses, all taken in the doctor's office. Maggie burns the Polaroids.

Some stories, such as "The Cousins," are told through letters. Oates uses italics to make certain concepts stand out — as in "The Fish Factory," where the narrator says, "It's wrong to say Three boys saw Tanya: our daughter. The correct way of saying it is Three boys saw Tanya's body. There is a subtle distinction."

"At the Seminary," a '60s story, includes Mr. Downey, his wife and his daughter Sally awkwardly driving to the seminary, where their son Peter is suffering "a spiritual crisis." While visiting him and the priest, Sally suffers a crisis of her own. But it's not anything you would predict. Sally's crisis is personal and surprising, yet not an extraordinary part of life.

This is characteristic of all the stories. Once the characters are carefully drawn, some very bizarre things happen to them.