Beattie strikes more nerves than a ham-fisted dental technician. Exceptionally interesting work.



People whom trouble always seems to find and introspective victims of fractured relationships are the featured players in Beattie’s strong seventh collection—published in the immediate wake of the Pen/Bernard Malamud Prize awarded to her this month.

Oddly, though, the strongest impression made by these 11 consummately wrought tales is their essential similarity to the wide-ranging, dialogue-crammed stories of John O’Hara’s later years. Beattie knows the suburban, artsy-craftsy, vaguely politically liberal, emotionally booby-trapped milieux her articulate characters inhabit as well as anyone now writing. She’s a master at presenting affectless characters who take on credibility and interest from their social and familial contexts—like the sheepish, well-meaning male protagonists of “Hurricane Carleyville” and (the superb) “In Irons,” both men who can’t stay with the women they fascinate and eventually disappoint, or the infertile wife of “Coydog,” who learns during a holiday family reunion (a situation Beattie employs repeatedly) all the secrets held by her elusive husband’s kin, despite their ritual assurances “that things almost always turned out for the best.” Melodramatic plot elements are also common factors. “The Big-Breasted Pilgrim,” a savvy study of a celebrated chef and his male assistant anticipating a presidential visit, climaxes with an incident that deftly reverses the story’s wry comic tone. “The Women of This World” finds a shocking, well-placed metaphor for its compact presentation of women victimized by emotionally distant men. Elsewhere, vivid glimpses of incompatibility, infidelity, and separation are unerringly juxtaposed against seemingly neutral images of contemporary faddishness and pretension (“We went to a party, . . . Gianni Versace was there, but he was peeing the whole time”). There are a few misfires (notably, “Cat People” and “See the Pyramids”), but most of these pieces dig deeper, and resonate more powerfully, than even Beattie’s most celebrated earlier fiction—and the title story, another ingenious portrayal of a bizarre extended family, may be the best she has yet written.

Beattie strikes more nerves than a ham-fisted dental technician. Exceptionally interesting work.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2001

ISBN: 0-7432-1169-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2000

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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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