A promising, and at times powerful, debut that explores the nuances of race, class, and sexuality with considerable aplomb.

A sensitive portrait of life among Houston's struggling working class.

At the center of this debut collection is a preternaturally observant, unnamed Afro-Latinx boy who narrates many of the stories. His philandering father eventually abandons the family, while his mother's pain at this betrayal permeates the home even after the father's disappearance. His brother, Javi, is a neighborhood drug dealer who reacts to this dysfunction with mean-spirited aggression against the narrator; his sister, Jan, distances herself from the family. Amid this domestic strife, our narrator begins to discover his sexuality through a string of encounters with other neighborhood boys. This is difficult for the narrator, whose brother is an intensely disapproving and homophobic figure. In the title story, the narrator recounts that "Javi said the only thing worse than a junkie father was a faggot son." When the narrator's sexuality isn't met with disdain, it is mostly obscured in silence, in his family's collective inability to recognize who he is. But we don't get much of a chance to know him, either: Though he is the collection's epicenter, he functions more like a reader stand-in than an actual character, providing us access to his world. The collection ripples outward from his perspective, using story to bring Houston's myriad cultures to life. In "Alief," we're introduced to Aja, a married Jamaican immigrant who begins a torrid affair with a local white boy—much to the chagrin of the Greek chorus–like neighbors. Their nosy disdain sets a tragic denouement in motion. In the collection's centerpiece, "Waugh," a sex worker named Poke and his pimp, Rod, deal with the profession's inherent dangers; rather than painting a portrait of abjection, however, Washington gives us the story of a tightknit community of marginalized people who cling to one another for safety and support. For all of this, however, there's something airy about this book. Despite its aspiration to represent a city, its prose often feels maddeningly abstract. "Elgin" begins this way: "Once, I slept with a boy. Big and black and fuzzy all over. We met the way you meet anyone out in the world and I brought him back to Ma's." This vagueness characterizes many of the stories' voices, such that they are often indistinguishable from one another. The collection sometimes feels more like a collection of modern fables than the hard-nosed, realist stories it wants to be. Still, Washington writes with an assurance that signals the arrival of an important literary voice.

A promising, and at times powerful, debut that explores the nuances of race, class, and sexuality with considerable aplomb.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-53367-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019



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



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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