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

ZIGZAGGING DOWN A WILD TRAIL

STORIES

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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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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