For those unlucky readers who've missed such singularly American books as The Omni-Americans (1970) and Stomping the Blues (1976), Murray has collected his most recent essays from largely obscure sources and assembled another world-beating prose obbligato—necessary for the times by virtue of its transcendent aesthetics. The second half of Murray's one-two punch (see p. 1590 for a review of his new novel, The Seven League Boots), these essays extend and restate his abiding belief that art at its best is ``fundamentally existential,'' and that ``stomping the blues'' means nothing less than fearlessly facing chaos and entropy. To make art out of raw experience, as Murray further asserts, requires skill and style. Murray also relies on Kenneth Burke's notion of the ``representative anecdote'' as the storyteller's main concern. For him, as he demonstrates in a breathtaking series of essays on Armstrong, Ellington, and Basie, that fundamental myth is ``the fully orchestrated blues statement,'' never to be confused with the blues as such (i.e., feeling overwhelmed by the devils of negativity). Ellington's autobiography, in Murray's opinion, is so inviting because it's true to his personality and imposes no extra- artistic agenda on the story. Which is also what Murray tried to do when he ``accompanied'' Basie on his autobiographical Good Morning Blues, an experience he describes in ``Comping for Count Basie.'' Pops Armstrong, in turn, is the great culture hero, a ``herald of the age'' who transforms the effluvia of pop culture into fine art. And never say to Murray that his resilient art gods aren't fine artists, for he drives home the analogies with Picasso, Matisse, et al. over and over again. And if you wonder about the title of this collection, Murray's essay on Hemingway explains that bluesman's struggle with the void. Stringent in aesthetic matters, the magnanimous Murray has no time for the ``fakelore of black pathology.'' But he's totally on time when it comes to great art, and in a critical idiom that's his all alone.

Pub Date: Feb. 13, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-44213-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1995



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




A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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