Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom: this is no ordinary book, either.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • National Book Award Winner

FORTUNE SMILES

STORIES

A half-dozen sometimes Carver-esque yarns that find more-or-less ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges and somehow holding up.

Tragedy is always close to the surface in Johnson’s work—with tragicomic layerings, sometimes, but it’s tragedy all the same. So it is with the opening story of the six here, “Nirvana,” which takes its title from the Kurt Cobain–led rock band but shares a spirit with near-future films like Her and Gattaca. A software engineer, desperate to do right by his paralyzed wife, reanimates people from the past: “After the doctor left,” the narrator says matter-of-factly, “I went into the garage and started making the president.” It’s science fiction of a kind but with an extra element of disspiritment: people exist, but we long for simulacra instead of them, “like she’s forgotten that her arms don’t work and there’s no him to embrace.” With more than a nod to his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son (2012), Johnson calls on two North Korean defectors who, now in the South, haven’t quite got their new world sussed out but are starting to get an inkling of how things work: “Christian talk, when said in a non-Christian way, scares these Southerners to death.” Their lessons in fitting in include essentials such as “handling money, hygiene, being pleasant, avoiding crime,” but it’s clear that no amount of instruction will make them feel at home. Safe houses, hospices, hospitals: these are the theaters where many of the stories take place, all enshrouded in a certain incomprehension—but, to Johnson’s great credit, seldom in hopelessness, for his characters are inclined to endure against the odds: “You turn the ignition and drop the van in gear, and you know this is no ordinary event.”

Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom: this is no ordinary book, either.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2015

ISBN: 9780812997477

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

A knowing, loving evocation of people trying to survive with their personalities and traditions intact.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2020

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

  • Pulitzer Prize Winner

THE NIGHT WATCHMAN

In this unhurried, kaleidoscopic story, the efforts of Native Americans to save their lands from being taken away by the U.S. government in the early 1950s come intimately, vividly to life.

Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau was part of the first generation born on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. As the chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in the mid-1950s, he had to use all the political savvy he could muster to dissuade Utah Sen. Arthur V. Watkins (whom Erdrich calls a “pompous racist” in her afterword) from reneging on long-held treaties between Native Americans and the federal government. Erdrich's grandfather is the inspiration for her novel’s protagonist, Thomas Wazhushk, the night watchman of the title. He gets his last name from the muskrat, "the lowly, hardworking, water-loving rodent," and Thomas is a hard worker himself: In between his rounds at a local factory, at first uncertain he can really help his tribe, he organizes its members and writes letters to politicians, "these official men with their satisfied soft faces," opposing Watkins' efforts at "terminating" their reservation. Erdrich reveals Thomas' character at night when he's alone; still reliable and self-sacrificing, he becomes more human, like the night he locks himself out of the factory, almost freezes to death, and encounters a vision of beings, "filmy and brightly indistinct," descending from the stars, including Jesus Christ, who "looked just like the others." Patrice Paranteau is Thomas' niece, and she’s saddled with a raging alcoholic father and financial responsibility for her mother and brother. Her sister, Vera, deserts the reservation for Minneapolis; in the novel’s most suspenseful episode, Patrice boldly leaves home for the first time to find her sister, although all signs point to a bad outcome for Vera. Patrice grows up quickly as she navigates the city’s underbelly. Although the stakes for the residents of Turtle Mountain will be apocalyptic if their tribe is terminated, the novel is more an affectionate sketchbook of the personalities living at Turtle Mountain than a tightly plotted arc that moves from initial desperation to political triumph. Thomas’ boyhood friend Roderick returns as a ghost who troubles Thomas in his night rounds, for example; Patrice sleeps close to a bear and is vastly changed; two young men battle for Patrice’s heart.

A knowing, loving evocation of people trying to survive with their personalities and traditions intact.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-267118-9

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more