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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2004

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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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Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

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A gathering of short stories by an ascended master of the form.

Best known for mega-bestselling horror yarns, King (Finders Keepers, 2015, etc.) has been writing short stories for a very long time, moving among genres and honing his craft. This gathering of 20 stories, about half previously published and half new, speaks to King’s considerable abilities as a writer of genre fiction who manages to expand and improve the genre as he works; certainly no one has invested ordinary reality and ordinary objects with as much creepiness as King, mostly things that move (cars, kid’s scooters, Ferris wheels). Some stories would not have been out of place in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and ’50s, with allowances for modern references (“Somewhere far off, a helicopter beats at the sky over the Gulf. The DEA looking for drug runners, the Judge supposes”). Pulpy though some stories are, the published pieces have noble pedigrees, having appeared in places such as Granta and The New Yorker. Many inhabit the same literary universe as Raymond Carver, whom King even name-checks in an extraordinarily clever tale of the multiple realities hidden in a simple Kindle device: “What else is there by Raymond Carver in the worlds of Ur? Is there one—or a dozen, or a thousand—where he quit smoking, lived to be 70, and wrote another half a dozen books?” Like Carver, King often populates his stories with blue-collar people who drink too much, worry about money, and mistrust everything and everyone: “Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.” Best of all, lifting the curtain, King prefaces the stories with notes about how they came about (“This one had to be told, because I knew exactly what kind of language I wanted to use”). Those notes alone make this a must for aspiring writers.

Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1167-9

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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