‘High Lonesome’ by Joyce Carol Oates

High Lonesome by Joyce Carol Oates, 2005

The magic trick:

Uniting characters and themes through a repeated description of a high lonesome whining sound

Another JCO story. Another trip to rural, ravaged upstate New York. Another dead body. Another narrator trying to sort out what it all means. And it’s so well done. She’s just really good.

But one thing this story isn’t is subtle. The device here is hard to miss. Three times throughout the story Oates describes a certain high-pitch whine. In doing so, she connects different characters, feelings, and scenes. It’s simple and obvious but no less effective. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.

The selection:

On the veranda, summer nights, Pop sat with his banjo. People laughed at him saying Pop thinks he’s Johnny Cash, well Pop wasn’t anywhere near trying to sound like Johnny Cash. I don’t know who in hell Pop sounded like – nobody, maybe. His own weird self. He’s picking at the banjo, he’s making this high old lonesome sound like a ghost tramping the hills.

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