Interesting premises developed with varying success: an uneven yet promising first volume.

THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD

Ten debut stories find Western expatriates settled—and, more usually, unsettled—in 1990s Prague.

Several of the expats are gay men seeking love but making do with sex, mostly with unresponsive or emotionally neutral partners. The unnamed narrator of “Exile,” for example, is an American-Jewish artist who supports himself with pornographic drawings, checking out Czech males to little effect, and returning to the States still unsure whether he’s a real Jew. The protagonist of “A Man of the Country” achieves sexual gratification with Jirka, his affable, casually sensual English-language student—but realizes that he’s only a momentary blip on Jirka’s kaleidoscopic radar screen. And in “Garage Sale,” Canadian teacher Donald quietly accepts exploitation by both the male dancer who squeezes him for “loans” and the cultured woman whom he dutifully marries. Hamburger offers fairly conventional satire on outsiders otherwise attracted by Prague’s dark romantic history, such as Rachel (in “Jerusalem”), who finds herself drawn to an intense Jewish theology student yet finds the strength to dump him when she realizes his religiosity is her rival; and Debra (of “You Say You Want a Revolution”), “a rich girl in revolutionary’s clothing” whose fiery espousal of what she labels “New Socialism” alienates her from American friends and Czech colleagues alike. Such stories are less interesting than “Control,” which reveals the avaricious derelictions of a checkpoint security guard, and than the two best pieces here: “The Ground You Are Standing On,” about the tourist Sarah Schroeder, who discovers, in evidence of ongoing anti-Semitism, her determination “to become a better Jew”; and “Law of Return,” about the American Michael, who overcomes a lifetime of passive indecision by declaring his Judaism and moving with his male cousin (and lover) to Israel.

Interesting premises developed with varying success: an uneven yet promising first volume.

Pub Date: March 16, 2004

ISBN: 0-8129-7093-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2003

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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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