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

INDECISION

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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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

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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