When you encounter the obsessions of an aged, fictional Mark Twain, you realize you've entered the unsettling twilight zone of Joyce Carol Oates. Frightening danger lurks throughout her novel, "Wild Nights," subtitled as "stories about the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway."
However, she isn't recreating the last days of their historic lives; instead, she's imagining a warmth of imagination that lingers after the flame has gone out. She well knows that writers live in the worlds they can imagine. For example, Poe's imagination outlasts the tumble that ended his historic life in Baltimore and puts him as a solitary lighthouse keeper in the South Pacific.
Dickinson appears in the time of malls and the Internet as the prized robotic possession of a childless couple. As a mechanical projection of the historic Emily Dickinson, she is chiefly a figment of her owners. Yet, like her quaint clothing, she wears vestiges of the inner poet's imagination.
Henry James, an "elderly gentleman volunteer" tending to hospitalized wounded soldiers, faces vast realities he never imagined, much less mentioned, anywhere in the entire output of his life.
In the final segment of the book, ostensibly Hemingway's "last days," the "Papa" narrator imagines the end of life by his own hand: "He feared that there might be some remnant of a soul remaining in some area of the brain not blasted away or that the brain stem would continue to function . . ." If that's true, Joyce Carol Oates has captured it.
--Bob S., Rock Road Branch