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FOR JOYCE CAROL OATES, NO FALL FROM GRACE

The Falls

By Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco, 496 pages, $26.95

If you plan to write the Great American Novel, forget it. Joyce Carol Oates beat you to it several times over.

This time her setting is Niagara Falls. It is a Falls of the early spring and autumn. The weather is dark, windy, overcast, rainy. The trees are large and brooding, the pavements crooked. And the river roars in the middle distance, a coda for all that sepia atmosphere. Even on a sunny day, it is a suicide's paradise.

The title is both a noun and a verb. The city rises and falls. Its people fall for each other, fall from grace, and fall trying to do the right thing. There are those who fall because they jump, those who are pushed, and those who are snatched from the edge.

The anti-heroine of the book is Ariah Littrell. She is introduced to the Falls on her honeymoon -- a grim, 14-hour affair with a closeted gay minister who was her last chance to avoid becoming an old maid. One quick, thwarted encounter with Ariah's sexual hunger drives Gilbert Erskine into the river and over the falls. He leaves a note behind: "Ariah I can't -- I'm sorry -- with this I free us both of our vows."

Ariah becomes a seven-day media wonder, "The Widow-Bride of the Falls."

She haunts the Niagara gorge with the police until Gilbert's body is found. In the process, she inadvertently attracts handsome, wealthy Dirk Burnaby, a local lawyer with a kind heart and a weakness for women in trouble.

Dirk and Ariah marry after an indecent interval and set up house in the prosperous Niagara Falls of the 1950s industrial boom.

Dirk is more than an equal to Ariah's passionate heart. They are blissfully happy in spite of Dirk's disapproving mother and Ariah's inherent conviction that Dirk, too, will desert her someday.

She develops selective blindness to anything that might violate her dream life. She will not open letters that threaten unpleasantness. She won't read the paper. Aria and Dirk have three children: bookish Chandler, who may or may not be Gilbert's child; handsome Royall; and dreamy, troubled Juliet.

In 1962, Dirk meets another woman in trouble. Nina Olshaker (a mythologized Lois Gibbs) lives on Love Canal and her kids are sick. In her neighborhood women miscarry, and lots of people are getting cancer.

Dirk knows he shouldn't take on the case. It will force him to go against his own people, the wealthy members of Niagara Falls' industrial ownership elite. But Nina's predicament pricks his conscience.

Of course he is eventually humiliated and ruined by the crooked judicial system and stonewalling government experts. The Canal scandal will not come up again until 1978 (the year it actually broke).

A police car finally drives Dirk off the road and into the Niagara River. His body is never found.

Ariah never forgives him for abandoning her. Like an avenging Medea, she takes out her anger and pain at this betrayal on her children.

She refuses to touch Dirk's estate and instead drags her family into a grubby house in a working class neighborhood where she supports them teaching piano. Dirk's name is never mentioned, except on the playgrounds where kids make up cruel songs about "shame" and the "Burnaby name." And around the Burnaby family, the city begins its slow, inexorable crumble into poverty.

The children grow up blighted or ignorant or both. Ariah encourages them to think small, skip college, take no chances.

But these are Dirk Burnaby's children, the grandchildren of Vernor Burnaby, who crossed the Falls on a high wire.

Eventually they shake off their mother's baleful influence. They look for answers about their heritage and find it in some odd places. In the end, his children rescue Dirk Burnaby's reputation and guarantee his legacy.

Nobody does a sweeping American story like Oates. She follows in a long line of terrific writers like Wharton, Dreiser, Ferber.

She integrates a clear-eyed, 21st century sense to her tales of the 20th century.

Take, for example, the physical description of Niagara Falls. We follow it through its tightly buttoned, fashionable high point into the pure grunge of its decrepitude, then to its future when the city can finally take responsibility for past mistakes and plan a more responsible future.

These are not the good old boys of the past. They are civic-minded, ecologically responsible visionaries.

Niagara Frontier locals will detect one false note in Oates' otherwise excellent description of the Niagara Falls area.

She consistently calls Grand Island "L'isle Grand." Why not "L'isle Chevre" for Goat Island or even "L'chute Niagara"? It comes off as a bit affected and rather annoying. Oates must have a reason for using it, but I can't figure out what it is.

Oates doesn't need to enhance her reputation, nail it down or in any other way fiddle with it. But if she did, this book would do the job quite well. It's a fine piece of work.

Pat York is a Western New York novelist.