Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates

Book Review by Andrew Minnick

In "Little Bird of Heaven," Joyce Carol Oates re-visits a very recognizable territory. The prolific writer uses a Western New York town, like those in many of her other novels including the bestseller The Gravediggers Daughter (2008), as epicenter of a tale about lives irreconcilably altered by a single traumatic event. Oates also resorts to common themes by exploring the devastating, and almost irrationally enthralling, societal and individual effects of sudden, violent, male physicality.
With "Little Bird of Heaven," which is 442 pages (almost paltry by Oates standards), she furthers her reputation for propagation of both novels (of which she has published nearly fifty including those under pen names “Rosamund Smith” and “Lauren Kelly”), and the words within those novels. Yet, unlike some novelists noted for their literary proliferation, Oates maintains a level of erudition and quality, which with such output one can only assume to be inveterate in her, that lift even her poorer attempts to a level of respectability. I might consider "Little Bird of Heaven" as one of her lesser works (though I cannot admit to having read all of them), but it is by no means dreadful and certainly worth a look from even a casual Joyce Carol Oates fan.
The setting for this novel is the small city of Sparta in the mid 1980s. Larger than a backwoods hamlet, but by no means metropolitan, Sparta is rocked by the brutal and unsolved murder of Zoe Kruller, an aspiring, though aging, local musician and mother. The novel follows the lives before, during, and after Zoe’s death of the two primary suspects (both interrogated but never arrested or charged). Divided into three parts, the novel begins and ends with the first person narrative of Krista Diehl.
Krista is the daughter of the prime murder suspect Edward “Eddy” Diehl. Having been Zoe Kruller’s lover, Eddy’s involvement in the investigation destroys him and estranges him from his children, friends, and the wife on whom he has cheated. The later even going so far as to legally restrict Eddy Diehl from coming within 500 ft of her or her home. Most of Krista’s narrative concerns her young and un-failing love for her father. Struggling at any point to refrain from calling the man “daddy,” Krista recounts Eddy’s demise and death, and what happens to herself as she matures in the wake of all the tragedy surrounding him. The probing undertone of Krista’s entire narrative questions the fierceness and depth of her love for her charming and handsome, but arrogant, crude, and ultimately underwhelming father. From the opening pages of the novel when Krista asks readers
“Would you think it strange that to me, who had lived all her life on the Huron Pike Road, the daughter of a man not unlike other men who lived on Huron Pike Road in those years, the smell of whiskey on my father’s breath was not disturbing?”
The tone is one of interrogation primarily aimed at Krista’s own self, but also at the concessions made by all people in their pursuit to confirm the existence of the good and ideal and desirable.   
The middle segment of the novel is so devoid of the ideal and desirable that the protagonist, Aaron Kruller, the son of the murdered Zoe, and her suspected-killer husband Delray, actively rebels against such concepts. Aaron has the misfortune of being first to happen upon the lifeless body of his mother and the novel’s third person account of Aaron’s life primarily concern the years following that terrible discovery. Years full of enough booze, drugs, and violence to make even the most thick-skinned readers cringe occasionally.
The first two parts of the novel are not spectacular but are fluid and engaging. The novel’s third part is lacking in those categories and the contrived resolutions contained in it add little to the quality of Little Bird of Heaven. In the concluding segment the two foci of the book meet as adults to, in a mystery novel-like turn (maybe a residual from Oates’s days writing mystery novels under her two other aliases), find out the truth about Zoe Kruller’s death. It is an artificial and bitter ending.
I would be remiss before concluding not to mention the importance of smells to this novel, even in the lackluster third part. As much as print can have a stench Little Bird of Heaven has one, and it may just be the strength of the novel. The significance of the smells is too deep a subject to probe in a critical review, but I will say that the olfactory description of every character is greatly important to their interpretation. Simply put, Little Bird of Heaven cannot escape the stenches of the downtrodden, desperate, and degraded and it is better off because of them.
"Little Bird of Heaven" is a fine enough novel as a whole with some flashes of the greatness that Oates is better known for. Superior work has come from her, but "Little Bird of Heaven" is unmistakably a Joyce Carol Oates’s novel. And I certainly mean that as praise.
Published by HarperCollins (2009)