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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1995

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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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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: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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