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Local Critics Pan True-to-Life Tale of a Student's Strange Death by Joyce Carol Oates

October 09, 2006

Joyce Carol Oates, a prolific writer who teaches at Princeton University, is drawing criticism for a new short story whose plot bears an uncanny resemblance to a tragedy that played out on a neighboring campus, the College of New Jersey, earlier this year. According to The Times, a newspaper in Trenton, N.J., Ms. Oates said the short story, “Landfill,” was influenced by the strange case of John A. Fiocco Jr., a College of New Jersey freshman who disappeared in March and turned up dead a month later in a Pennsylvania landfill.

But Ms. Oates said the story drew on other sources as well and was not intended to be a fictionalized version of Mr. Fiocco’s mysterious death. People at the College of New Jersey aren’t buying that. A professor denounced Ms. Oates for a “lack of compassion and humanity” in choosing to write about a recent tragedy that “can only add to the overwhelming pain the [Fiocco] family has already suffered.” The family has indicated that it plans to sue the college (The Chronicle, June 6).

For her part, Ms. Oates said she is astounded by the reaction, given that there are many differences between the protagonist of her story, which appears in this week’s New Yorker, and the real-life Mr. Fiocco. But there are also many similarities. Ms. Oates’s character disappeared after drinking, and so did Mr. Fiocco, his friends said. Both ended up in a trash bin on their campuses, and both were found later in a landfill.

Ms. Oates said the story was intended only as a reflection on what she described as the dark side of undergraduate life nowadays.