Thoughtful, but too long and attenuated. At this stage of Hamburger’s career, his short stories are better.

FAITH FOR BEGINNERS

An American Jewish family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem is the subject of this debut novel from Hamburger (The View from Stalin’s Head, stories, 2004).

When 22-year-old underachiever Jeremy Michaelson almost dies of a drug overdose, pragmatic matron Helen shepherds him and her terminally ill husband David (a retired psychoanalyst) onto a tour (“Michigan Miracle 2000”) that arrives in Haifa during a punishing heat wave. While Jeremy, happily gay and ever on the prowl, checks out a “cute Hasid” and gets harassed by “handsome, snickering Arab bullies,” Helen searches the World of her Fathers for inspiration, guidance and an understanding of why she and David have produced two gay sons (her elder, unlike reckless Jeremy, is a respected professional secure in a long-term relationship). The novel thus splits into two halves. We follow Jeremy as he attends a rowdy Shabbat dinner hosted by an Orthodox acquaintance, courts a shy, closeted yeshiva student, flashes his Western liberal’s credentials in social situations that cry out for reticence, then undertakes a whirlwind affair with a deaf Palestinian kindergarten teacher (which puts the latter in very real danger). Meanwhile, Helen attracts the initially unwelcome attentions of sexy Rabbi Sherman, stumbles through a meeting with Shimon Peres at a public reception and experiences a moment of mingled enlightenment and further confusion in an underground cave (Jerusalem tourist attraction Hezekiah’s Tunnel)—in a lame echo of the Marabar Caves incident in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Hamburger strives mightily for variety, introducing chapters with excerpts from Jewish history or doctrine (“Faith for Beginners,” as it were), and focusing briefly on the moribund David, as he resigns himself to his fate and returns home early. As Helen, Jeremy and their varied instructors all learn, “No one ever said it was easy to be a Jew. . . .”

Thoughtful, but too long and attenuated. At this stage of Hamburger’s career, his short stories are better.

Pub Date: Oct. 4, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-6298-5

Page Count: 356

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2005

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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