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his face. His twin! His! Fifty-seven years later! Other times he’s mute with grief. Sits unmoving just staring transfixed at the thing in the palm of his hand that, weightless, weighs so much. “So this is it,” he says. While more than half of the collection tends to bend naturally toward the feminine if not the feminist as the book’s cover Modigliani’s “Portrait of Madame Chechowska” suggests, Oates isn’t afraid of handling men when the story warrants it. So, “The Abduction” and “Romance” both examine the fretting ambivalence of middle-aged men attracted to young and/or “bad” girls. “Senorita” amplifies the infatuated interest of an affluent businessman in strippers in general, and one such dancer in particular; we can’t help but hear how the women become more than their profession through an aficionado’s awe. As the collection title promises, Oates is most interested in defining and assigning every manner of human relationship that suggests attraction. She essentializes the complications of contradicting classes, places, and philosophies without diminishing her lovers’ depth. Oates has compiled a dictionary of affairs between professional women and young boys, pinkcollar girls and pimps, and intellectuals who prefer to act rather than think about their sexual liaisons. “Superstitious,” “The Assignation,” and “Sentimental Encounter” all flirt with the intricacies and insanity of obsessive love and lust, but “Adulteress” is perhaps the most subtly riveting love story of the collection. The “pretty” adulteress, complete personal and business insurance ALICE ANDERSON AGENCY 808-A East 46th P.O. Box 4666, Austin 78765 “Best Lodging Location for Fishermen & Beachgoers” Group Discounts P.O. Box 8 Port Aransas, TX 78373 Send for Free Gulf & Bay Fishing Information who honestly loves both her husband and her husband’s best friend, leaves them both at a restaurant dinner table while she slips into the women’s room. There she encounters her future self in the person of an older “pretty” women who is “suddenly stricken by a spasm of vomiting.” The adulteress returns to the dinner table explaining, “There was a sick woman in the ladies’ room, I couldn’t just leave her,” and the reader is left to consider the significance of her statement as declaration, excuse, or plea. AS MIGHT BE EXPECTED of a great and prolific contemporary American writer, Oates’s lovers in The Assignation collection are never onedimensional. But then they are never from ethnic or minority groups, either. Blacks and Hispanics are the only characters Oates seems hesitant to elevate beyond stereotype and periphery, and they are the only people in these stories that are not endowed with the capacity or the complexity to love. Since few successful writers are blatantly racist at least in their fiction Oates’s sin seems primarily one of omission. Of the 40odd stories in this collection, only six even mention the minorities who crowd the cities a stone’s throw away from Oates’s home in Princeton, New Jersey. A black janitor’s sole interaction with the major character in “Train” is something less than fresh in that it is described as any class-conscious liberal might: . . . and the black janitor humming to himself with mop and pail casts him an ambiguous look and calls out g’night Mr. and he calls out in turn good night and is about to add the man’s name but thinks better of it, doesn’t want to seem condescending. The janitor says jovially but inscrutably doan look like a bad night out there and he says well that’s good. “Senorita,” likewise, makes brief mention of octoroon and Latino striptease artists, and “Maximum Security” casts black men as the majority of inmates in a prison visited by a housewife who’s feeling caged and stifled. The prison warden explains when asked, “That’s just the way the system works, ma’am,” and the reader is left to infer the woman’s empathy and affinity with the black inmates, who, she is told, talk only of getting out. In “The Quarrel” two gay lovers are attacked in their home by a man who could either have been “a light-skinned black” or a sallow-skinned Caucasian, but the central character in “The Bystander” picks Julio Perez’s picture decisively from the police book of criminals. Perhaps the best story by which to measure Oates’s intent in her omission of developed minority characters is “The Accident.” The story details a few moments in the consciousness of a man whose wife has left him. As the man anxiously drives through the ice to a long awaited Christmas dinner with his wife and children, he rear-ends a car that is stopped on the railroad tracks: So he’s sitting in the Chrysler the radio turned high . . . and the other driver a tall burly black man is headed back to speak with him and he rolls the window down leaning out meaning to explain politely but without apology what happened .. . but without a word the black man simply punches him in the face. With a big balled fist like a rock. Punches him so hard his head swivels with the impact of the blow and his neck is a stalk easily broken and there’s no time for him to understand what has happened .. . Indeed, the “tall burly black man” who comes and goes totally unexplained and unexplored in this story might remind Oates’s readers of her non-fiction essay on Mike Tyson published in Occasions and Opportunities \(Dutton, the essay, Oates writes at length of Tyson’s “civilized” vs. “barbaric” code of conduct as not only the code of boxing, but as a dichotomy to which ghetto youths who truly “love to fight” are susceptible. According to Oates, Tyson is “polite,” “trained, managed and surrounded by white men,” but he is also a “killer” whose skill and drive render him almost robotic and sometimes confusingly calm and passionless to onlookers. Tyson sounds like the model for the “burly black man” of “The Accident.” But is Oates comfortable enough with any other individuals of color to allow them into her sexy stories? Apparently one more, a Barbadoan maid, who looks like Aunt Jemima and plays with a baby doll for one paragraph of “Only Son.” Are black men instinctively violent or pathetically docile servants for Oates? Are Hispanic hookers and thieves unworthy of more than three lines in a story? Obviously, the polite killer who is difficult to comprehend in this collection is Joyce Carol Oates. Tyson has said he’s in the fight game for the personal satisfaction, the glory, and the money. Oates, a comfortable Princeton writer of stature and its attendant wealth could only benefit from looking beyond the black and Hispanic folk she so obviously knows only peripherally and stereotypically. Her ethnic omissions are painfully noticeable in The Assignation collection precisely because it is so otherwise perfect, because the reader becomes used to and delighted with interactions between a wide variety of characters across class and even spiritual lines. The other-than-white reader can take little solace in the brevity of each story, in the modernist detachment and unconventional artistic license so frequently and expertly employed by Oates, because she will not risk her manipulative and potent pen or the authority of her crystal-clear voice on the exploration of those “otherthan.” Here’s one gifted writer who would do well to arrange her own trysts with people of color, not just those who wear them. 20 FEBRUARY 10, 1989