Joyce Carol Oates is a hugely accomplished literary novelist, but she has always delighted in crossing and bending genre lines. Her latest, “Jack of Spades,” is a thriller with hints of horror. It’s a briskly paced, brief book, more novella than novel, which serves its headlong story well. I read most of it in one sitting.
Its narrator, Andrew Rush, is the “author of bestselling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene.)”
He has, he tells us modestly, been reviewed in the New York Times (but, he adds with a touch of pique, only in the crime fiction roundup). He has even been called “the gentleman’s Stephen King.” He goes on to outline the parallels between himself and King, although he is “sure they are only coincidental.”
Coincidence, too, we’re sure, that Rush has written four novels, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific,” under the pen name Jack of Spades. No one knows he wrote them – he uses a different publisher and agent and communicates with them only electronically. As Andrew Rush, he is a meticulous planner who composes on a computer. As Jack of Spades, he writes longhand late at night in a drunken fever dream and scarcely remembers the books.
He keeps the two careers separate successfully until a couple of things happen: His daughter picks up a copy of a Jack of Spades book and finds the plot disturbingly similar to an event in her own life, and Rush is sued by a local woman he’s never heard of for plagiarism. Don’t worry, his lawyer tells him, it happens to lots of famous writers – why, it’s even happened to Stephen King.
As “Jack of Spades” barrels to its end, its plot takes many twists I won’t give away. But, in Oates’ tale, does Jack of Spades scare the bejeebers out of Stephen King? Yes.
Jack of Spades
Joyce Carol Oates
Mysterious Press, 208 pages