Lively, varied tales that incisively showcase the trickiness of contemporary life.



In this debut collection, the characters navigate careers, relationships, and religious angst in 14 short stories alternating between realism and whimsy.

Many of the author’s protagonists are entitled young men whose supposed problems overlay their privilege—or, in short bursts of magic realism, point to absurdities in modern life. In the title story (named after a Jack White lyric), the narrator can’t help but deliver electric shocks; does his condition make him a danger or a would-be superhero? He meets someone who’s willing to take a chance that his electricity might sometimes be healing rather than harmful. Two of the best tales, “Smiling” and “The B’Jesus,” similarly imagine guys isolated by difference: one whose inability to stop smiling loses him his girlfriend and his job; and another who has worn an old homunculus on his back since he “scared” it out of Great Aunt “Early” Earlene. Elsewhere, religion is the source of inner turmoil. In “The Great Salt Lake Desert,” Ian’s composure is imperiled after he loses his virginity to a lapsed Mormon and encounters the Sodom and Gomorrah story in a Gideon Bible. Likewise, in “Heeding Doctor Eisner,” the overall standout, the Nabokov-ian narrator, an adjunct sociology professor, is so rattled by a Hispanic “preacher” on a train that he enacts his own version of hellfire. Judaism is a recurring point of reference, often as a stricture to be transcended, as when the kids of “High Holy Days” find small, cheeky ways to defile the synagogue—a reminder that “holiness wasn’t only in the sanctuary.” Premature births, mental illness, new media, and freeloading are central concerns in other tales in this skilled collection (most of the stories were previously published in literary magazines). “Vacancy,” about a teenager who unwittingly inspires a punk band’s new song, is the one piece that doesn’t seem to fit. Tillman (English, Newbury College) writes a terrific first line (“I was ten years old when the neighbors called the police to extinguish the Holy Sock Fire my mother had started in the parking lot of our building”). But his sometimes-inconclusive endings are a mite less successful.

Lively, varied tales that incisively showcase the trickiness of contemporary life.

Pub Date: July 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9989667-0-0

Page Count: 190

Publisher: Braddock Avenue Books

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2017

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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.


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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