A finely crafted collection that perfectly evokes a place and culture.

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NOBODY KNOWS HOW IT GOT THIS GOOD

Wright offers stark stories from the contemporary Deep South in this debut collection.

A cynical used car salesman in Birmingham—“an academic of the catchpenny auto-industrial complex,” as he calls himself—gets the opportunity to move up to new Jaguars, though a mural across the street from the dealership begins to haunt his thoughts. A black anti-corruption county commissioner attempts to raise his albino autistic son in Alabama’s richest (and all-white) suburb, where he feels they are not welcome. A white boy moves with his family to an all-black town and watches his father descend into an unsettling obsession with the civil rights era. A disgraced safety engineer at a steam plant walks uninvited into a woman’s house, sits on her couch, and when she asks him what he’s doing, says, “I’m Columbus. I live here now.” In these 16 stories, Wright pokes at the still-unhealed wounds of Alabama to discover the hatred and trauma flowing beneath the surface. The census takers, bankers, bodyguards, and prison cooks that populate these pages must contend with the tortured history that has preceded them, from the legacy of slavery to the Deepwater Horizon spill’s poisoning the waters offshore. In Wright’s vision, modern Alabama hasn’t gotten any less crazy; the old madness is simply manifesting itself in new ways: “The Dirty South is a disenchanted land of guilt and black milk and terror, white bed sheets and burning crosses in the front yard, the charred wood—cut from the same ugly pines used to frame your house and church—never quite cool to the touch,” writes the narrator of one story. “I’ve taken communion, and been a cannibal.” Wright’s prose is stylishly verbose and honest, offering descriptions that seem to have ambulated onto the page of their own accord: “When DOT took a slice out of Red Mountain for the expressway…most of downtown Birmingham self-actualized to antique ruins, reverting to a giant used-car lot, a smooth asphalted prairie where trash and news blew before the winds.” He successfully combines the anarchic nihilism of Hunter S. Thompson with the deeper, exploratory writings of William Faulkner, identifying the cancers of his chosen corner of the American South and providing not solutions so much as requiems. The author shapes observations that feel simultaneously folksy and startling; one woman observes of her neighbors: “They’re such goddamn Good Samaritans they’d show you how to load a gun if you were trying to blow your head off.” At nearly 300 pages, the book is perhaps overlong for a story collection, and a few of the weaker pieces could have been left on the editing room floor. That said, the thematic consistency is so strong that the reader leaves the book with the wondrous sense of having spent a lifetime among the crooks and malcontents of central Alabama and having come away much wiser for the experience.

A finely crafted collection that perfectly evokes a place and culture.

Pub Date: July 31, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60489-209-3

Page Count: 305

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: June 14, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

STORIES

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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