A promising debut from a writer who may cast her net more broadly in time.



A first collection celebrates in vivid prose those breakthrough moments that lead to understanding or action—in people whose lives may be either fashionable or feminist clichés of despair and disarray.

The settings here range from Oregon to Philadelphia, but the characters, who tend toward the narcissistic and self-absorbed, are not as varied. It’s this insular, even claustrophobic sensibility that makes these 15 well-crafted stories ultimately less affecting—with two exceptions. One is the novella, “Liability,” in which a young bisexual woman fleeing her dysfunctional family moves to Portland, Oregon, a place that seems to suffer from “terminal niceness”; after her counterculture landlord has to be hospitalized and she moves out, however, a chance meeting with her landlord’s troubled teenage daughter, now living on the streets, offers a transforming yet scary opportunity for her to help someone else. Then there’s “I Seen Some Stuf Horabl Stuf Lisen,” in which a single mother, abandoned by her lesbian lover, worrying that she may be damaging her six-year-old son (she slaps him once in the grocery store), is touched by a loving and wise story the boy has written at school. Another piece describes a girl who works as a professional weeper at funerals because she cannot stop crying, although when she begins laughing, all sorts of magic happens (“Aggiornamento”); a gay friend who died from AIDS is recalled by two lesbians and their daughter as they prepare a celebration of his life (“In Case of Emergency”); a young woman with an eating disorder learns that her accomplished mother also once suffered from compulsive behavior (“What’s More”); and an adolescent girl’s nascent sexuality and sense of self are aroused by a sleepover at which a game becomes a catalyst for change and revelation (“The Whole Truth and Nothing But”).

A promising debut from a writer who may cast her net more broadly in time.

Pub Date: May 14, 2000

ISBN: 0-312-24118-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 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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