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By Ellen S. Comerford

The Falls, by Joyce Carol Oates, Harper Collins, 2004, 481 pages.

I went to Williamsville High School with acclaimed and prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates. She was the editor of our yearbook. Even back then, everyone knew she would one day be a writer, but who knew just how famous! For years, I've read her books, always looking for familiar people and places. Much of her fiction is set in or near Western New York.

Her latest novel is simply titled "The Falls." It takes place in Niagara Falls, N.Y., during the '50s, '60s and '70s. The novel begins with a honeymooning couple visiting the Falls. They are from Troy, N.Y. He is a minister and she, Ariah Erskine, is the daughter of a minister. They spend the night in a luxury hotel. The next morning, the man climbs over a railing and plunges over the falls.

For a week, the grieving widow waits by the falls as attempts are made to recover his body. Dirk Burnaby, a young lawyer, waits beside her. In that week, he falls hopelessly in love with Ariah. He proposes and she promptly accepts. Parents on both sides are horrified, as the marriage follows so soon after the tragedy. Home is a condominium in Luna Park, which sounds something like Buffalo Avenue. Two sons are born, Chandler and Royall. The couple is happy, though Ariah wonders about the paternity of the first son. The third child is a daughter, Juliet.

Dirk's law practice thrives. He has two offices, one of them in Buffalo. When a mysterious woman dressed in black comes to his office seeking help in a lawsuit against some prominent people and companies, he asks his secretary to turn her away.

One day, he sees a woman and young child waiting in the rain for a bus. They look so pitiful that he stops to offer them a ride home. Home is Love Canal, and soon Dirk becomes so involved in her case that he forgets everything else. His sister tells Ariah that the mysterious woman in black and Dirk are having an affair, so Ariah throws him out. Dirk loses his case and is so enraged that he attacks the bailiff and has to face the fact that he may lose his license to practice law. When it looks as if nothing else could possibly happen to Dirk Burnaby, it does. While driving between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, he is edged to the side and over a railing into the Niagara River. Thus, about halfway through a very long book, a main character is killed.

I had trouble getting into the characters. There is something very strange and cold about the plain, red-haired Ariah. The Love Canal plot is interesting.

Once Dirk makes his exit, his three children take on new life as they reach adulthood, but Ariah is still strange. She denies them any knowledge of their father or his family.

It's evident that Oates knows Niagara Falls very well. There are all sorts of things the reader will recognize. Dirk's trip with the mystery woman from the South End to Love Canal is right on the button, but then there are places that exist only in the mind of the author. The falls themselves are romanticized. Oates frequently refers to the mist, which is everywhere, even finding its way inside homes.

As in most of Oates' work, there is a darkness to "The Falls," but it is fascinating to read what she writes about places that we see every day.

Ellen S. Comerford is an artist and free-lance writer from Lewiston.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Dec. 28 2004