One part Faulkner, one part McCarthy, but the recipe here isn’t complete. The parts that are Pancake are strongest, and the...

Twelve debut stories, all partly perfect and partly contrived, about Appalachian folk trapped between a cruel mood of nature and an intrusive brand of civilization.

Here are all the calamities that can afflict the mountainfolk: ghosts, floods, droughts, fires, car accidents, bulldozers. Amid the mayhem, people try to find their place: in “Jolo,” a girl thrills at her relationship with a burn victim; in “Redneck Boys,” a woman remembers when she still had the option of running away. Pancake informs us in “Dirt” that West Virginia lost more men in Vietnam per capita than any other state; if her vision of Appalachia is accurate, then the backcountry has the highest concentration of poets as well. There’s plenty of luster from these people in the form of florid prose, but it’s not always clear that “luster” is what would best describe them. It’s a world where the land is like a body, and the bodies are like the land, and everyone has dirt for blood. But it rings false when lyricism is assigned to that which is simply utilitarian for these folk. The sense that this is forgotten country is best seen in “Bait,” in which residents mark time by counting off local highway fatalities. It’s the quieter moments that impress: a woman’s realization that the last part of her lover’s body she will see naked is the crown of his head (“Redneck Boys”), the observation that what has been Joby Knob for locals (“Crow Season”) becomes Misty Mountain Estates when the developers arrive to steal away the author’s Appalachia.

One part Faulkner, one part McCarthy, but the recipe here isn’t complete. The parts that are Pancake are strongest, and the perfections linger.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2001

ISBN: 1-58465-118-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2001




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


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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