CARTHAGE, by Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, 482 pp., $26.99.
You may wish, from time to time, that you could feel like a teenager again. "Teenage knees?" you think. "Sign me up!" But then you run into someone like Cressida Mayfield. The delicate heart of Joyce Carol Oates' moody, marvelous new novel, "Carthage," 19-year-old Cressida reminds you that those teenage knees come at a price: You'd have to suffer through all those teenage emotions again to get them.
Cressida can be cruel. She'll snip threads on her older sister Juliet's cashmere sweater, "shivering with elation" at the prospect of its ensuing, inexplicable unraveling. She can be jittery. Around family acquaintances, she was once struck with "a kind of claustrophobia, conjoined with anthrophobia -- her fear of other people, trapping her with their eyes, making a claim upon her." Tragically, Cressida feels unlovable. She believed -- she knew -- her devoted parents' "love for her was a kind of pity, like love for a crippled child, or a child dying of leukemia."
And now, poor Cressida is missing. She was last seen on the night of July 9, 2005, in the company of Cpl. Brett Kincaid, a disfigured, traumatized Iraq War vet, who had until recently been Juliet's fiance. He is found the next morning, "incapacitated in his Jeep Wrangler, that appeared to have skidded partway off" the road inside a forest preserve near Beechum County, New York, the fictional Adirondack setting of Oates' 2012 novel, "Mudwoman."
It looks like there's been a struggle -- bloody scratches on Brett's face, bloodstains in the Jeep -- but the former soldier's mind is shredded from the prior evening's mix of cheap alcohol and psychoactive meds. He remembers nothing. So the people of Carthage, led by Cressida's fiercely steadfast, hopeful father, are blindly combing the wilderness. They hope it's a rescue mission. They fear it's a recovery mission.
Oates is a writer whom the legendary New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling would admire: She writes more often than the handful who write better, and she writes far better than the few who write more often. "Carthage" can be subtle. In a drawing, Cressida mockingly depicts her family over and over, in tribute to M.C. Escher, to show how "earnestness, repeated, suggests idiocy." Later, Oates conjures flesh and blood. Imprisoned men "so furious with sexual longing and rage," throw "themselves against the bars of their cells, thrusting their arms through, stretching out their fingers as if they wanted to grasp, grip, shake and throttle, tear into pieces."
But perhaps Oates' finest, most haunting skill is the way she can peg our weaknesses without judgment. "Always," she writes when Cressida perceives a rejection, "you believe that those whom you adore will adore you."