It isn’t high art, but it’s full of high spirits.


Paralyzed by indecision, does he dare to eat a peach? No, the protagonist of this debut novel is likelier to devour an antidepressant before gazing into the abyss.

Dwight Wilmerding is who Max Fischer, the antihero of Wes Anderson’s 1998 film Rushmore, might have grown up to become had he lost all sense of direction and taken an unnatural interest in his sister. He’s a bright enough guy with no apparent ambition apart from hanging around with his New York flatmates and luxuriating with his Indian girlfriend, whom he doesn’t quite know how to treat in part because he can’t be bothered to make the appropriate inquiries. Dwight has some self-awareness, and certainly knows that his slacker ways are likely to end in tears. Yet, afflicted by abulia, the inability to make decisions, he lies awake at night “feeling like a scrap of sociology blown into its designated corner of the world.” His sister Alice, for whom he has more than brotherly feelings, is a psychiatrist without a license and his mother a source of mad money. Dwight’s father is about the most sensible person in the book. (At one point he tells his firebrand daughter Alice that if she wants to be a revolutionary, she really should show some backbone and kill him.) Dwight, dumped from his job at Pfizer—let there be no post–Doug Coupland generational novel without its brand-name-checking—and unburdened by any sense of responsibility, decides to make off for Quito, the capital of Ecuador (“pronounced Key-Toe, for the uninitiated”), and look up a college classmate for whom he’s been carrying a flame. Laughs, sex and machete-wielding ensue, followed by more sex, expensive sun dresses and choice encounters with other classmates better able than Dwight to make a decision, but no luckier in the outcome of their exercise of free will. Those who don’t become impossibly annoyed with the hapless, initially whiny lead will enjoy seeing this well-paced tale through to the end.

It isn’t high art, but it’s full of high spirits.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-6345-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2005

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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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