Let Gray be Gray, and he won’t disappoint you.



A most curious collection of semiautobiographical stories, from the veteran Scots author (the Whitbread-winner Poor Things, 1993; etc.) and graphic artist.

The tales feature different protagonists and narrators, but the dominant one is a long-married (sometimes divorced) male approaching old age, taking stock of his (disappointing) life, and drawing resentful contrasts between vigorous youth and enfeebled age. There are terse, flimsy vignettes like “Pillow Talk,” which portrays a husband trying to goad his wife into leaving him; a memory of “failures of common decency” that blighted a schoolboy’s childhood (“Sinkings”); and a description of a peace march (“15 February 2003”) that’s only an excuse for lambasting Bush-and-Blair’s Iraq policies. Several stories address the volume’s themes more directly, and resonant more strongly. “No Bluebeard” is a serial husband’s account of his failures with three spouses (“because I had been constantly mean and ungenerous, cold and calculating”)—and his compatible fourth marriage to a deranged woman, in flight from her controlling family, whose neediness binds him to her. “Job’s Skin Game’ presents the musings of a successful building contractor who loses his sons to the 9/11 disaster, alienates his grieving wife, then develops a pernicious disfiguring eczema—the physical symptoms of which excite and gratify his imagination. And in “Aiblins,” a poet and writing teacher recalls relationships with promising, and troublesome students: notably, an insufferably arrogant, demanding, and increasingly paranoid “genius.” This latter story is an especially insidiously persuasive expression of the vagaries of aging, failing, compromising, compensating, and surrendering that the best of these pieces memorably evoke. Readers unfamiliar with Gray may find them annoyingly self-indulgent and pallid. Those who know his work are likelier to accept them as quirky roughhewn fragments of an agreeably eccentric ongoing fictional autobiography.

Let Gray be Gray, and he won’t disappoint you.

Pub Date: April 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-84195-547-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Canongate

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2004

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


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

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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

Did you like this book?