SourlandStories By Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco; 373 pages; $25.99) Forget, if you can, that you've ever heard of Joyce Carol Oates. This is probably an experiment doomed to failure: still, try. Wipe from your mind of the Olympian reputation, the awards, the literary metabolism that runs at such a pitch that it turns other writers into comparative sluggards and devoted readers into lazy bums. Do it because, on the occasion of another Oates book, a reader often feels like a hiker in a valley between two steep mountains: It's hard to marvel at the way the light glints off the chunk of quartz in your hands when there's an avalanche of previously published books tumbling toward you from one cliff face, and another of forthcoming tomes roaring down from the other. Pity the new book that is so buried before it has a chance to be admired! It doesn't quite seem fair. Let's look at "Sourland," then, Oates' newest collection of stories, as if it were written by an anonymous talent who scored one of those mythical deals for a first collection. Lucky duck, we might say; not, however, dear God! What we have of "Sourland" after we pare away the author is a puzzling set of stories, innovative, brilliant in places and hurried in others. At first glance, the 16 tales here are almost all centered on an act of violence. There is a stabbing, a stoning, two beatings, one conviction for manslaughter, three dying fathers, an accidental amputation, a case of parental neglect, a serial murderer of children, and four rapes, three of which happen to widows, one that happens in probate court and one that could be ambiguous because the widow to whom it happens seems to welcome the sex in a self-annihilating way, only to run into the frozen woods in a postcoital fit of hysteria. There are slapdash, stream-of-consciousness sketches that reach toward a thrilling idea only to suddenly abandon it, like "Bitch," in which the narrator's dying father has small things stolen from him in the hospital, and "Donor Organs," about a young man's fear of dying. There are recurrences that a sympathetic reader may wish to invest with metaphorical weight, only to find that they're a result of carelessness: too many mentions of long black cashmere coats, too many acts of brutality that seem like the easiest way for a story to go and not the most interesting, too many unintended repetitions, like the story with a character named Woody followed by a story with a character named Woods. In "Babysitter," this striking insight appears: "In all marriages there is the imbalance: one who loves more than the other. One who licks wounds in secret, the rust-taste of blood." Unfortunately, it is followed fewer than 40 pages later by "Amputee," in which the narrator says, "In any love-relationship there is the stronger person, & there is the weaker. There is the one who loves & the one who is loved." And yet! Despite the slips in taste and meticulousness, despite the embarrassment of violence, in some of these stories there is evidence of a great mind; in all of them there are sentences that leave a deeply sensuous pleasure in their wake. Oates plays with the form of storytelling in "The Story of the Stabbing," folding the sparking incident over and over like origami until it is storytelling that is the act of violence, and not the original stabbing. She can effortlessly inspire great dread in the reader; I had to pace just to read "Lost Daddy," in which a 4-year-old gets lost in the park with his disturbed father. The marvelous novella "Honor Code" shines brightest in the collection because it is simultaneously the calmest story and the richest, the one in which Oates enters a rare state of relaxation and allows herself to revel in the narrator's voice, making the characters come alive in a way the other, more wild, stories do not allow. When Oates is in top form, the stories undermine the reader's first impression: Oates' constant and sometimes facile spurts of brutality do not compose her subject at all. What she is interested in is, instead, the fragile white underbelly of violence, the vulnerability that seems to invite violence to happen. The widow's shaken state, the child's innocence, the mother's momentary flight of selfishness, the longing of a girl for her father to come back from the brink of death; such inadvertent tenderness is what tempts the bogeyman inside. Vulnerability is the true terror in these stories; it is the vast and frozen and, yes, sour land in which the protagonists live in trembling fear. Oates' canniest examinations of this awful terrain are what rescue the book from its sensationalism, and what make it into something distinct and challenging, all on its own.