Good characters, but not enough for them to do.


The flickering relationship between a dedicated cytotechnologist and a free-spirited uranium plant maintenance engineer more or less energizes Mason’s rambling fourth novel.

He’s Reed Futrell, long-divorced father of grown children he never sees, who has a restless itch for the outdoors. She’s Julia Jensen, likewise spouseless, perpetually seeking potential cures for numerous infectious diseases. And she has “no kind words for nuclear energy,” which is an issue, because Reed works at the Cascade Uranium Enrichment Plant, where material for nuclear power plants is produced. In the plant’s vicinity—Mason doesn’t specify the name of the town in which the book is set—evidence of deadly environmental contamination is mounting, and Reed’s refusal to worry about it drives Julia nuts. The author has mastered all the relevant technical stuff, but after heading for a while toward focusing on the titular romance, her novel meanders. Julia heads to Chicago for an extended family visit and disappears from the narrative for a distractingly long time, leaving Reed to carry the book. Fortunately, he’s fine company: a goodhearted sensualist with a high-school whiz’s passion for science, especially astronomy. Reed loves his ebullient dog, Clarence, his spacey best friend, Burl (who “embraced life to such an extent that he was pulled in many directions”) and his aging mother, Margaret, a feisty stroke victim yearning for liberation from hospitals and the nursing home. His zest for life is enormously appealing, even when it requires ignoring his father’s horrible work-related death years earlier and his own disturbingly high radiation-level readings. It’s almost appealing enough to compensate for the fact that Mason, lacking sufficient plot for a novel, clogs the narrative with repetition. The soggy romantic “movie ending” is something we’d expect both Julia and Reed to ridicule unmercifully.

Good characters, but not enough for them to do.

Pub Date: Aug. 30, 2005

ISBN: 0-375-50719-1

Page Count: 288

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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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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