BROKEN VESSELS

In his first volume of nonfiction, short-story writer Dubus (The Last Worthless Thing, 1986, etc.) reveals the passions, struggles, and strengths underlying his art, life, and arduous recovery from personal tragedy. Sparing few of life's messy details and contradictions, these 22 deeply personal essays, dating from 1977 to 1990 and strongly reminiscent of the author's fictional themes, offer an unflinching view of one man's search for truth. In ``Of Robin Hood and Womanhood,'' a childhood tendency toward ``angelic devotion to the female'' yields slowly to an effort ``to see women as they are...creatures like me.'' ``On Charon's Wharf'' connects the mysteries of the Eucharist—``without touch, God is a monologue...he must touch and be touched''—to the dissolution of a marriage once words suffocate action. Here are the joys of writing and the frustrations of publishing (in five essays that move from childhood storytelling to a tribute to writer Richard Yates); the search for social justice (``The Judge and Other Snakes''); the pleasures and responsibilities of fatherhood (throughout). Here also are moments of shimmering lyricism, as in ``Under the Lights,'' when a rare home-run ball hit by a Class C journeyman appears as ``a bright and vanishing sphere of human possibility, soaring into the darkness beyond our vision.'' The last third of the book, a wrenching chronicle of loss and reaffirmation, deals with the highway accident that cost Dubus the use of his legs, the subsequent breakup of his third marriage, and the ensuing battle for physical and spiritual peace. We are left with a view of life as an overlapping sequence of stories, answering a ``need to speak into the silence of mortality,'' informed by the quest for connection, the ``sacrament'' of ``shared ritual'' so ably served by this collection. A beautifully written, moving, and altogether wonderful book.

Pub Date: July 15, 1991

ISBN: 0-87923-885-2

Page Count: 155

Publisher: Godine

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1991

Categories:

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

Categories:

SIGHTSEEING

STORIES

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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