Pride of place in this second collection of ten stories by Dark (Naked to the Waist, 1991) is given to a tale that has already become something of a contemporary classic. The title piece (successfully adapted for TV) portrays the restrained sorrow of a mother who cares for her adult son as he’s dying from AIDS, and her eventual realization that he—not her buttoned-up cold fish of a husband—has been “the love of her life." It’s the most immediately arresting, though not nearly the most accomplished, of Dark’s knowing, if occasionally slightly clichÇd, dramatizations of romantic obsession, marital discord, and family unhappiness. In “Close,” for example, a disoriented father-to-be wrestles—fairly predictably—with the temptation to cheat on his pregnant wife. “Home” depicts the confused reminiscences of marriage and motherhood of an Alzheimer’s patient being herded into a nursing home. And “The Jungle Lodge” portrays two sisters matured in different ways by a vacation in Peru with their doting stepfather. The more ambitious tales are generally better. “Dreadful Language” encapsulates the whole lifetime of a “judgmental” girl who coolly distances herself from loved ones, marries for comfort, and finds she has condemned herself to a life of unfulfillment. In “The Tower,” an amusing parody of Henry James’s tales of renunciation, a fortyish bachelor encounters at home and abroad an enticing young woman with whom he finds he must settle for a platonic friendship. The story even apes James’s penchant for injecting workaday metaphors (“Clara, . . . had depleted her tanks”) into otherwise ultra-genteel periodic sentences. And “Watch the Animals” deftly chronicles an unconventional heiress’s effect on her social set, in a story narrated in an eloquent first-person plural voice. Interesting forays into Cheever and Alice Adams territory, with a trace of Deborah Eisenberg’s range of subject matter. A generally worthy successor to Dark’s well-received debut volume. (First serial to Harper’s)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-684-86521-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1999

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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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