Stories that wear their moral outlook on their sleeves.



A debut collection primarily concerned with the societal strictures laid on both whites and blacks.

But not laid with equal weight. Although Nailah bookends her 14 stories with a heavenly prologue and epilogue in which an older brown angel teaches a younger one that skin color is only a small part of human nature, the tales themselves impart a different lesson. In “Trudy,” a white woman accuses a black cashier of pocketing two quarters. “The Ride” shows a white businessman falling under the brief but attitude-changing tutelage of a black cab driver who miraculously undoes years of racist training in the space of their ride to the airport. When the basketball star of “Bucket” is warned by his team’s owner not to attach himself too closely to a certain lady friend, his lack of freedom recalls his family’s years of indebtedness and the shadow of slavery before that. Other pieces focus on black people’s inner struggles. “Four” depicts young kids who typify black male archetypes (crazy misfit, super-athlete, gifted genius, street fighter), portraying the unhappiness that accompanies each and the solace they find singing four-part harmony on a summer evening. The teenager in “French” and the middle-aged businessman in “Inside Out” both unsuccessfully attempt to distance themselves from their African-American roots. Race resides on the periphery, however, when Nailah delves into her other major subject: children burdened with imperfect parents. In “My Side of the Story,” a little boy runs away to find the mother who walked out, but the squalor of her new life brings him up short even before she sends him back to his well-meaning if distracted father. An even younger child pays a “Sunday Visit” to her mother, imprisoned for the death of the girl’s baby brother; the facts of the story remain murky, but the daughter’s neediness is heart-wrenching.

Stories that wear their moral outlook on their sleeves.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-385-50293-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2001

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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