Watson consistently delivers that elusive element great Southern writers have always brought to the table—a delicious sense...

ALIENS IN THE PRIME OF THEIR LIVES

STORIES

Domestic dramas, failed marriages, gunshots in the night and a dash of alien intrigue punctuate a collection of gothic tales.

Returning to the pungent stories that represent his best work, National Book Award finalist Watson (The Heaven of Mercury, 2002, etc.) reaches new creative heights with some pieces and falls prey to literary navel-gazing in others. Fortunately, great works outnumber baffling ones in this mostly splendid collection. The first story, “Vacuum,” paints childhood not as we remember it but in its mad flush of abandon, as three boys get into trouble when their overworked mother reaches the end of her rope. Some entries are little more than snapshots, among them “The Misses Moses,” which profiles two spinster sisters, or “Terrible Argument,” which ends in self-inflicted gunfire. But when Watson is on his game, even the slightest tale carries narrative weight. That’s the case with one of the slimmest, “Fallen Nellie.” A beach girl sees her life pass before her eyes in seven pages of Watson’s sand-dry prose: “In this manner she tumbled through time all the way to the very end of it. Doesn’t matter which one did it to her, which gaptooth left her here in the palmettos beside the trail in the wildlife preserve along the beautiful white dunes of Bon Secour Beach. It was done.” There are some missteps. “Water Dog God” feels like a leftover from an earlier collection, and “Ordinary Monsters,” a confusing pastiche of flickering moments, is impenetrable. Elsewhere, though, the author focuses with Carver-like intensity on his characters’ lives; standouts include “Are You Mister Lonelee?” about a man who pretends his wife is dead when she’s really just a different woman now, as well as the time-bending, melancholy title story.

Watson consistently delivers that elusive element great Southern writers have always brought to the table—a delicious sense of the unexpected.

Pub Date: March 22, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-393-05711-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2009

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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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