“What are Americans like today?” John Steinbeck set out to answer that question in Travels with Charley, his 1962 travelogue, but it had been a theme of his fiction, as it had been a theme of many works by American writers loosely labeled naturalists. It was not a query of merely local interest. America was to be the world’s great experiment in freedom and self-reliance. How its people adapted to their conditions and expectations—whether they would thrive or wither in the great spaces given to them—could be understood to suggest something about human nature itself.
Stephen Crane combed through Bowery brothels and tenements for his early stories and his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. For An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser famously adopted details from the sensational trial of Chester Gillette, who murdered his inconveniently pregnant girlfriend Grace Brown, a New York skirt factory worker, in 1906. In The Executioner’s Song, a “true-life novel,” Norman Mailer incorporated everything from court documents to transcripts of Good Morning America to amass a portrait of a killer, Gary Gilmore, whose “senseless” acts and eventual execution seemed products of a pitiless social order.
Joyce Carol Oates—with the Victorian scale of her output and her headlong style—may seem an unlikely member of this group, but over the past several decades she has built an impressive body of work exploring specifically American manifestations of violence and victimhood. She has focused chiefly on the sinking fortunes of the working class, its messy descent into marginalization, drug addiction, and despair. Many of her novels and short stories are set in the least glamorous outposts of a once-great empire, in the landfills and housing developments of anonymous suburbs, on the outskirts of decaying cities, and in her own imaginary “Sparta,” a struggling city on the Black River in upstate New York where meth labs sprout on rural farmland and crime seems to be the only renewable resource. She has set herself to address Steinbeck’s question, and her answer is terrifying.
Virtually every story in Dear Husband examines claustrophobic, poisoned, sometimes murderous relationships between siblings, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, parents and infants. In “Landfill,” Hector Campos Jr., a freshman at Michigan State University, chafes against his parents’ anxious expectations, barely passing his classes. Tipping drunkenly into a garbage chute during pledge week at a fraternity house, he ends up crushed in the Tioga County landfill, illustrating a process that eluded him in his introductory science course: “species change not by free will but blindly.” In “The Heart Sutra,” Andre Gatteau, a renowned older poet, practices meditation in a Zen monastery in the Adirondacks—a ritualized rejection of his fiancée, who, in a borrowed house nearby, prepares to slit her own veins and those of their unwanted child.
The epistolary form of two brilliant pieces—“A Princeton Idyll” and the title story—harshly illuminates the locked perspectives, of family, class, and …