A fine collection of stories.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN

STORIES

Following his dazzling debut, Ross drops seven more doses of disquieting fears and misleading hopes.

Having established his penchant for head-turning narrative architecture in his much-lauded first novel, Ross (Mr. Peanut, 2010) wrings bleakly funny, if somewhat panicky moments out of this fierce collection of short stories. The opener, “Futures,” drills straight down into the collective discomfort of the American middle class. A man dressed in his best suit tries desperately to hide his anxiety moments before a job interview, fantasizing that his interviewer might just be an attractive woman with a job offer to save his life. His cynicism is tempered, a little, by his affection for his neighbor and her troubled son. But as with most things in America, the wish granted is a far cry from the wish envisioned. In “The Rest of It,” a small-minded professor’s run-in with an aggressive maintenance man turns his thoughts to the human condition. “Because the world seemed too wide, its fortunes too random, and its blessings too fleeting to honor one man’s bravery—or to punish his cowardice,” Ross writes. A remembered tale of college hijinks ends with an awful blow in “The Suicide Room,” while “When In Rome” details the consequences of a long-standing rivalry between two brothers, one a citizen of sorts and the other your basic lowlife. One of Ross’ great strengths is walking that eternally fine line between showing the reader things—a bloody fistfight between brothers, or a Twilight Zone-esque reveal—and the heartbeat monitoring of a character’s internal life. The latter comes into play in the finely honed title story, in which a traveling freelance writer weighs a life-changing moment against the stories she might tell a stranger someday about that very decision. In those moments, these characters are either untethered by their own vividness or weighed down with all the trouble in the world. In either case, it’s impossible to look away.

A fine collection of stories.

Pub Date: June 30, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-3072-7071-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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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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