Strong if uneven: the emerging voice of a new talent to watch.



Twelve despairing stories set in a sun-bleached—and bleached-out—Southwest.

In the title piece, young Leigh’s friendship with the pathetic new kid on the block culminates when they expose themselves to the neighborhood pervert, but the story’s real power derives from claustrophobic working-class world Leigh resides in. In “Trapeze,” a slightly older girl, Karen—like Leigh, Catholic and from a big family—is tormented by her gymnastics partner. Karen survives, even prospers, but also hardens in a heartbreaking way. Willa, another tragic survivor, wins a Pyrrhic victory of wills and love against her widower father in “The Shiprock Fair.” Unlike most of the tales, “Blue Fly” is set at the turn of the last century and has a boy at its center, orphan Madison Evers, whose poignant longing for love focuses on his brother’s wife. As the protagonists grow up, the stories become bleaker, many mere snapshots of hopelessness. So the pieceworker of “Where I Work” and the young girl about to go off with a stranger in “Dr. War is a Voice on the Phone” are victims without a chance. “Crazy Yellow” returns to the world of children, but eight-year-old Pete, who lies to his sick mother and ends up alone in the house with yet another of Cummins’s ominous strangers, lacks the survival instincts of Karen or Willa. The richest stories reach beyond victimhood into more complex emotional territory. In “Headhunter,” a young woman on her way to visit her idolized father ends up in a fatal confrontation with another motorist and walks away thinking more about her father than the dead man. In “Bitterwater,” the self-awareness of the narrator’s Navaho husband, who abandons her and ends up in a detox center, is an oddly reassuring surprise. The other piece about marriage, “Starburst,” plumbs the twisted loyalties and understandings between spouses as a policeman who suspects his wife of theft finds himself aroused by her recklessness.

Strong if uneven: the emerging voice of a new talent to watch.

Pub Date: April 7, 2003

ISBN: 0-618-26925-8

Page Count: 192

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2003

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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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