A patchy but impressive collection from a resourceful writer.


A collection of stylistically varied stories that highlight more lows than highs in the tricky business of emotional investment.

A field trip for two middle-aged Eastern European journalists on a fellowship in Chicago gets bumpy when the woman’s interest in the man seems foiled by the presence of their perky young guide. Mathews (The World of Tomorrow, 2017) complicates a familiar plot as the elders reveal first loves that went badly awry amid political turmoil. The love within a close friendship waxes and wanes as a young photographer chronicles her schoolmate’s rise to rock-music fame and flameout. A couple whose home and baby are both relatively new feels additional strains when the father develops an obsession with mold in the house. This book certainly is not a love song of the homely, sentimental sort. It’s realistic without cynicism, more of an extended aria for a range of intimacies and attachments that never run smoothly. There’s some respite in humor. A circus clown realizes he has little chance with the new aerialist as she dallies with the strongman and the laughably inept lion tamer. Jokes hold together a father and two of three sons on the golf course, helping the third see why his family ties have frayed. At a critical moment, a woman chooses her life-size cardboard man over her flesh-and-blood beau. Mathews is a restless stylist, and some experiments here are less successful than others, but such efforts suggest he isn’t satisfied even with his more accomplished conventional stories, and his talent suggests he shouldn’t be.

A patchy but impressive collection from a resourceful writer.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-38214-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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