An unrepentantly offbeat collection by an admirably free-spirited writer.



This unusual, sometimes-unsettling debut story collection provides the reader with an unvarnished look into the inner lives of a mix of curious characters.

Barrodale, an editor at Vice whose work has appeared in Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, which awarded her its 2012 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, gives voice to characters who may be a bit creepy or crazy and who could maybe use more self-control, a clearer sense of purpose, or a better way to connect. The uneasy souls who inhabit Barrodale’s stories could stand to drink less, screw around less indiscriminately, and take fewer hallucinogenic drugs, but her portrayal of them is honest and unflinching, and she writes with an almost stark simplicity, unapologetically laying out their missteps and half steps toward and away from one another and themselves. In “William Wei,” the story for which Barrodale won the Plimpton Prize, a man spends his weeknights in his barren apartment, eating the same meal and watching the same movie, until a woman draws him out and takes him on a “bad trip” that changes his life. The male therapist at the center of “Frank Advice for Fat Women,” in the midst of a divorce, slides into inappropriate relationships with an attractive client and her even more attractive mother. The possibly autobiographical narrator of “Catholic,” meanwhile, fools around and falls in love with a married drummer, whom she drunk-emails as he tours the world and grows famous. When, sometime later, she sees him in concert, he catches her eye before the band plays "a song with the refrain ‘my is wrong.' " That could be a refrain here as well: the people in these stories are a little off—is it the drugs? The alcohol? Or are those just symptoms?—yet they are searching for something: a connection to one another, a grip on themselves. Like many of her characters, Barrodale’s stories can be undisciplined, at times veering off in confusing directions. But even so, they remain compelling. You never know where they will take you or whether, at the end of the trip, your life won’t feel at least a little changed.

An unrepentantly offbeat collection by an admirably free-spirited writer.

Pub Date: July 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-374-29386-4

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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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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