But Mason hasn’t been often at her best since early in her career. Sadly, Zigzagging does little to reverse the downward...




Appropriately homely imagery and dead-solid perfect dialogue help some, but don’t do nearly enough to animate the morose folks who wander through the 11 uneven stories in this third collection from the Kentucky author (Midnight Magic (1998); Clear Springs (1999).

Most of those characters are women returning to their old abandoned Kentucky homes in the wake of compulsive meandering, busted marriages, or affairs that have gone nowhere. For example, the earthy protagonist of “With Jazz,” twice-divorced, mourning the daughter who died in childhood, ceaselessly bar-hopping. Or Wendy, of “Night Flight,” seen “returning to the place she had once been so eager to escape,” hoping good-ol’-boy Bob may after all love her as much as he loves a good time; or divorced Sandra McCain (of “The Funeral Side”), back from Alaska to stay with her widowed father, a mortician whose dutiful relationship with death is in fact the source of his resilience and strength. Too many of these pieces recycle essentially similar premises and details, remain undeveloped, and trail off into inconclusive endings. Mason’s prose has a certain colloquial snap and lilt, and she’s capable of both quietly arresting metaphors (“Snow made hats on garbage cans”) and deadpan hilarious renderings of colloquial speech (“He had one eyebrow that went all the way across. Them’s the guys to watch out for”) that occasionally recall Flannery O’Connor at her devastating best. But on balance this is a disappointing volume, redeemed only by moments in “A Funeral Side,” and two unqualified successes. “Tobrah” recounts 40ish, (again!) twice-divorced Jackie’s slow, troubled bonding with her five-year-old half-sister, the child of her father’s old age, bequeathed to her perhaps as a mocking revelation of the comforts of motherhood to which Jackie has come too late. And “Charger,” about a 19-year-old working in a fertilizer plant and fighting off both depression and the temptation to settle down with his agreeably trashy girlfriend, is a laconic, bittersweet beauty.

But Mason hasn’t been often at her best since early in her career. Sadly, Zigzagging does little to reverse the downward trend.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2001

ISBN: 0-679-44924-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2001

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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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Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

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A gathering of short stories by an ascended master of the form.

Best known for mega-bestselling horror yarns, King (Finders Keepers, 2015, etc.) has been writing short stories for a very long time, moving among genres and honing his craft. This gathering of 20 stories, about half previously published and half new, speaks to King’s considerable abilities as a writer of genre fiction who manages to expand and improve the genre as he works; certainly no one has invested ordinary reality and ordinary objects with as much creepiness as King, mostly things that move (cars, kid’s scooters, Ferris wheels). Some stories would not have been out of place in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and ’50s, with allowances for modern references (“Somewhere far off, a helicopter beats at the sky over the Gulf. The DEA looking for drug runners, the Judge supposes”). Pulpy though some stories are, the published pieces have noble pedigrees, having appeared in places such as Granta and The New Yorker. Many inhabit the same literary universe as Raymond Carver, whom King even name-checks in an extraordinarily clever tale of the multiple realities hidden in a simple Kindle device: “What else is there by Raymond Carver in the worlds of Ur? Is there one—or a dozen, or a thousand—where he quit smoking, lived to be 70, and wrote another half a dozen books?” Like Carver, King often populates his stories with blue-collar people who drink too much, worry about money, and mistrust everything and everyone: “Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.” Best of all, lifting the curtain, King prefaces the stories with notes about how they came about (“This one had to be told, because I knew exactly what kind of language I wanted to use”). Those notes alone make this a must for aspiring writers.

Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1167-9

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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