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Suburbanites discover growing up is hard to do

Joyce Carol Oates's 29th novel, "Middle Age: A Romance" is actually a collection of midlife crises set in an affluent New York suburb.

She follows an impressive career of ambitious social novels, including, most recently, her bestselling National Boosk Award Finalist "Blonde" and her Oprah selection "We Were the Mulvaneys," with a rather peculiar look at the tendency of wealthy middle-aged Americans to reinvent themselves in the face of disillusionment.

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"Middle Age" isn't a romance in the sense of a love story. What Oates romanticizes - to an absurd degree - is her deceased hero, Adam Berendt, a reclusive, one-eyed sculptor and disciple of Socrates who lived for Art and Beauty and questioned everything else.

Adam dies in the novel's opening pages while rescuing a drowning child in the Hudson River during a July Fourth sail. He leaves a wake of shaken devotees baffled by inconsistencies in his life - his enormous wealth, although he lived like a pauper; his sexual magnetism, although he rebuffed all advances; his fire-scarred body and seemingly unscarred psyche; his mysterious background.

Adam's memory propels his friends to alter their "anesthetized" lives. He becomes their collective conscience, an "invisible surveillance camera overhead" urging them to redeem themselves while they can: "Save your life. One of us, drowned, is quite enough."

With broad strokes - and not much fondness - Oates paints "the magical village of Salthill-on-Hudson, where everyone was middle-aged." So many people drive Lexuses that you wonder if Oates, like Fay Weldon, has struck a deal for endorsements. It is a town where even the adolescents, "staggering beneath the weight of their parents' ambitions for them like overburdened camels, were middle-aged in spirit." Oates nails these grown children, "curdled with spite," and skewers their mothers, women "who couldn't bear a few minutes' solitude in their lavish homes, who frantically telephoned friends through the day and filled up their calendars with dinners, cocktail parties, luncheons, tennis dates, excursions into the city, charitable organizations ... women who panicked at the possibility of divorce, yet also at the possibility of spending a quiet weekend alone with their husbands...."

Oates tracks more than half a dozen characters groping for new meaning for themselves as their children repudiate them and their spouses seek romance elsewhere. But her couples are premature empty-nesters. Doesn't Oates know that today's affluent are still changing diapers well into their forties?

Often, the source of her characters' redemption seems downright silly - stray dogs, found art. Clearly, the point is the passion, not the object. The trouble is, Adam is neither a convincing character nor an effective literary device. We don't believe he could possibly have such a profound, galvanizing effect on everyone he meets, from lonely wives to corporate chiefs.

Writing faster than most of us can read, Oates's fluidity often seems less crafted than received. She is frequently repetitive - "how tedious, another's idealism," she repeats, tediously - and ties up the plot so tightly as to choke off credibility. Yet, so often dark and merciless, Oates is oddly lighthearted in this gawky but mordant novel about people caught in that awkward transitional stage between youth and old age.

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Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.