A powerful debut collection of eight stories (two previously published in Story magazine) that are linked thematically: They're all about man and dog, though not in any sappy sense, and with no cute anthropomorphizing. In ``Bill,'' an octogenarian feels closer to her dying poodle than to her own family, and cooks up a grand feast the night before he's put to sleep; in ``Agnes of Bob,'' a childless widow realizes that her husband cared more about his dog, Bob, than about her, and the dog's presence reminds her of the emptiness in her marriage; in ``A Blessing,'' a pregnant woman is disabused of any cute notions about dogs when a trip to the country to buy one ends with an act of brutality. No sentimentality mars these gritty narratives. ``The Wake'' is a wildly implausible piece about a bachelor whose ex- girlfriend returns to him in a box via UPS. He's more concerned with the dead dog now rotting under his house than with her, his obsession offering a deliberately unsubtle correlative to a failed relationship. ``Seeing Eye,'' a vignette about a dog working for a blind man, compares its present life of responsibility to its former life roaming free on a farm. The full resonance of one of Watson's dominant themes (men-as-dogs, elemental in their needs, faithless in their couplings) emerges in the three best stories. ``The Retreat'' finds a few soon-to-be divorced men hiding out in the country, drinking, hunting, sloughing off responsibility. ``Kindred Spirits'' layers the metaphorical relationships in its story-within-a-story about a dog tracking a wild boar in the Florida swamp. The tale turns into a not very subtle parallel to the narrator's present cuckolding by his business partner. The title piece is an elegy to a dog-like life of wildness, freedom, animalism no longer available to men. Watson's muscular prose stands shoulder to shoulder with the best cracker realists, from Faulkner to Larry Brown. (Regional author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-393-03926-9

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1996

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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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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