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Originally published Friday, June 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"My Sister, My Love": A new novel by Joyce Carol Oates

"My Sister, My Love" by Joyce Carol Oates Ecco, 576 pp., $25.95 To author Joyce Carol Oates, subtlety is a dirty word, and no more so than...

Special to The Seattle Times

"My Sister, My Love"

by Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco, 576 pp., $25.95

To author Joyce Carol Oates, subtlety is a dirty word, and no more so than in her latest doorstopper novel, "My Sister, My Love." Disclaimers aside, it's clearly inspired by the tragic life and death of pint-size beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey — an event that resulted in a media circus and gives Oates the chance to poke not the Ramseys, but the Ramsey watchers, in our collective eye.

This being fiction, names and places have been changed, but just barely. Instead of the Ramseys, this family is called the Rampikes. Instead of Colorado, they're relocated to the upscale community of Fair Hills, N.J. And instead of a beauty queen, the victim is a figure-skating prodigy.

As for names: Betsey is the histrionic, social-climbing stage mom. Bruce, aka Bix, is the football player-turned-top executive and frequently absent dad. Skyler is the big brother, and his sister, christened Edna Louise, becomes Bliss — naturally! — after she takes to the ice.

As Skyler tells us, it has been a decade since the terrible events of Jan. 29, 1997, when his sister was killed and concealed within the Rampike home. The family has had its ups and downs since the tragedy, including a divorce. But Betsey rebounded with three books — "Bliss: A Mother's Story" and two other inspirational memoirs — and a logical spinoff, the Heaven Scent line of beauty products. Dad's making do. He's on his second family and remains the cat's pajamas in the corporate world.

Skyler, however, still limps (catch the metaphor) from a gymnastics accident that occurred when his parents thought he would be their little prodigy. Unable to surmount their artless handling or the tabloid culture that invaded the Rampike home after his 4-year-old sister strapped on skates, he's "a nineteen-year-old junkie" scuttling between his cheap apartment and neighborhood outreach.

No matter that after 30 hours of interrogation, a convicted sex offender took the rap for Bliss' death and then committed suicide. Skyler remains a suspect — in the court of public opinion, at least — and he himself is unsure about what role he played. Now, he says, he'll write "not a mere memoir, but (maybe) a confession" from the point of view of the strange and neurotic boy who liked to read R. Crumb's savage comics and draw tattoos on his body. This is the same boy who, as the overlooked child, had every reason to commit the crime.

Writing as if the events occurred to someone else, Skyler dips into that strange relationship that evolves between the famous and their onlookers.

"At the age of eight Skyler was made to see the supreme illogic of the adult world: his younger sister had the power to confer 'specialness' upon others, even strangers, who came into her orbit though Bliss herself was shy, uncertain, self-doubting and fearful of falling on the ice, like all skaters.

"If I fall down, Skyler, no one will love me!

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"And cruel Skyler said Better not fall then, Bliss."

Skyler makes frequent use of footnotes to remind readers that he's the one who lurks behind the mask. He fusses over the use or misuse of literary devices he doesn't much understand. He misspells and makes allusions with blatant inaccuracy. All the while, his alter-ego, Oates, pushes his story perilously close to over-the-top, and yet: She's such a smart observer of how we live that the center holds, she keeps the reader enthralled.

"My Sister, My Love" is an illuminating critique of media madness and all the shallowness that makes it go: misplaced parental ambitions and messed-up marriages (Skyler finds a used condom in Daddy's Jeep); religious faith for convenience and drugs that cover the pain (mostly prescription); a society so addicted to celebrity that it's easy to forget the ordinary folks who matter to us.

Most important, "My Sister, My Love" reminds us that the "Tabloid Hell" has not only become part of the air we breathe but also, as Pogo would have it, we've met the enemy, and it is us.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and author of the forthcoming "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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