Extraordinary, character-driven tales from a sublime voice that resonates.


Characters in this collection of grim short stories can’t escape death, isolation, and loneliness.

In “Joe and Irish,” Carla recalls her 25th birthday, which was mere days before her boyfriend’s suicide. The couple visited his mother, a peculiar woman who donned only underwear indoors and served popcorn for dinner. But it was the unnerving “game” the mother and son played that truly haunts Carla. Most of the 12 tales here revolve around death and some of its darkest outcomes. Gillian, for example, is devastated by the loss of her husband, David, in “The Mushroom Suit.” While she lovingly muses on their healthy sex life, Gillian may not have known David as well as she thought. He had been elaborately planning his death for years, the pinnacle being the titular suit for his body—an idea that Gillian finds cringe-inducing. Other stories zero in on isolated characters, be they secluded or forlorn. “What Goes on Near the Water” follows Laney, who lives by the sea with the grandparents who have raised her. They won’t tell her about her long-gone parents, and she has just fading memories of her mother. Laney becomes obsessed with the mysterious girl reputedly hiding in a 19th-century lighthouse who walks in pitch-black cave tunnels at night. The book’s somber tone is relentless, even when humor surfaces. That’s the case in “Ducky,” in which Loren’s father has taught his pet American Pekin duck to smoke. It’s a gleefully absurd visual that the duck’s “pronounced smoker’s quack” amplifies. But the bird’s bizarre habit doesn’t overshadow the central theme of Loren and her father struggling to deal with the fact that her mother succumbed to cancer.

Parkison aptly develops the multistory cast, which persistently engages regardless of characters’ quirks or atypical circumstances. Some readers may be taken aback by one man’s collecting insects in pillboxes and jars but will sympathize when his wife of 37 years suddenly falls ill. Similarly, a babysitter in the South frets she’ll be kidnapped, tortured, or killed by the Mexican cartel she’s testified against. Familiar settings, meanwhile, further aid in drawing in readers. There’s an after-dinner sit-down on the porch as owls hoot; the seemingly abandoned house that fascinates neighbors; and open windows that let in the warm breeze on a “muggy summer afternoon.” This collection touches on several weighty topics, including suicide and sexual assault, all of which the author handles with impressive subtlety. One story even involves a surgeon and her meticulous work with a scalpel. Yet the smoothly detailed narrative easily evades excessive graphicness as well as subverting expectations. Still, these tales practically demand attention from the very first sentence (or two), like “The Forgotten Daughter,” which opens with: “Ansel and I used to date before he went to prison for killing my mother.” It’s a staggering line and a showcase for the fierce prose on display throughout the volume. In “Water,” for example, Parkison writes, “What his nets capture: plastic bottles, weeds like hair, eels, blue fish, long, silver fish shining in moonlight, and a woman’s gown, shredded and bleached pink like sundown.” Readers should savor these marvelous stories, as they are sadly over too soon.

Extraordinary, character-driven tales from a sublime voice that resonates.

Pub Date: May 17, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-9913780-4-3

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Unbound Edition Press

Review Posted Online: June 13, 2022

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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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The range and virtuosity of these stories make this Mosley’s most adventurous and, maybe, best book.


A grandmaster of the hard-boiled crime genre shifts gears to spin bittersweet and, at times, bizarre tales about bruised, sensitive souls in love and trouble.

In one of the 17 stories that make up this collection, a supporting character says: “People are so afraid of dying that they don’t even live the little bit of life they have.” She casually drops this gnomic observation as a way of breaking down a lead character’s resistance to smoking a cigarette. But her aphorism could apply to almost all the eponymous awkward Black men examined with dry wit and deep empathy by the versatile and prolific Mosley, who takes one of his occasional departures from detective fiction to illuminate the many ways Black men confound society’s expectations and even perplex themselves. There is, for instance, Rufus Coombs, the mailroom messenger in “Pet Fly,” who connects more easily with household pests than he does with the women who work in his building. Or Albert Roundhouse, of “Almost Alyce,” who loses the love of his life and falls into a welter of alcohol, vagrancy, and, ultimately, enlightenment. Perhaps most alienated of all is Michael Trey in “Between Storms,” who locks himself in his New York City apartment after being traumatized by a major storm and finds himself taken by the outside world as a prophet—not of doom, but, maybe, peace? Not all these awkward types are hapless or benign: The short, shy surgeon in “Cut, Cut, Cut” turns out to be something like a mad scientist out of H.G. Wells while “Showdown on the Hudson” is a saga about an authentic Black cowboy from Texas who’s not exactly a perfect fit for New York City but is soon compelled to do the right thing, Western-style. The tough-minded and tenderly observant Mosley style remains constant throughout these stories even as they display varied approaches from the gothic to the surreal.

The range and virtuosity of these stories make this Mosley’s most adventurous and, maybe, best book.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8021-4956-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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