Admirable in its broad sweep of Mason’s estimable career as a writer and likely as good a gathering as there could be—if,...

PATCHWORK

A sturdy introduction to the multifaceted work of Kentucky laureate Mason (Nancy Culpepper: Stories, 2006, etc.).

People are always going places they don’t want to go in Mason’s tales. In her lovely novel In Country, it’s a mother traveling, much against her will at first, with her granddaughter and her son’s best friend to the wall in Washington to reckon with the death of her boy in Vietnam: “Mamaw lets loose a stream as loud as a cow’s. This trip is crazy. It reminds Sam of that Chevy Chase movie about a family on vacation, with an old woman tagging along.” In “Shiloh,” the 1982 story that announced Mason’s arrival on the literary scene, it’s a reluctant wife finally giving in to her mother-in-law’s demand that she visit the Tennessee battlefield, where her husband learns that he’s been missing a big part of their story: “History was always just names and dates to him….And the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him.” Of course, sometimes people do go places they mean to: There’s Paducah, Kentucky, for instance, “a provincial town with a funny name, but here in the western end of the state it was never an inconsequential place.” Whether story or novel, essay or review, Mason’s work is characterized by closely realized detail, sympathy with the players involved, and, usually, sharp but good-natured humor: When a Kentucky girl decides to take a year off from school in the story “Bumblebees” and head off to exotic Lexington, she says, “Look, think of this as junior year abroad, O.K.? Except I won’t be speaking French.” Mason’s reader-friendly appreciation of Mark Twain, a writer she much resembles, also rings absolutely true: “He’s very contemporary, I think, because in his time he saw so far ahead, as if he were looking right at us.”

Admirable in its broad sweep of Mason’s estimable career as a writer and likely as good a gathering as there could be—if, for a fan, too short.

Pub Date: June 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8131-7545-4

Page Count: 478

Publisher: Univ. Press of Kentucky

Review Posted Online: May 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2018

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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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