The uncanny power of Baxter’s work derives from his knowledge of our secret selves as well as our surface ones.

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GRYPHON

NEW AND SELECTED STORIES

This is the fifth story collection from novelist Baxter (The Soul Thief, 2008, etc.); its 23 stories (seven of them new) range from mediocre to memorable to mesmerizing.

How well do you know your other half? The question haunts some of the relationship stories. As Dennis and Emily are splitting up after eight years, they learn new things about each other ("Poor Devil"). Janet (in "Flood Show") has a lesson for husband Conor, still obsessed with his first wife. Our ultimate unknowability is driven home most strongly in "Kiss Away.” In this radiant love story, Jodie and Walton are head over heels. Then Jodie meets his ex, who tells her Walton is abusive. Is she lying? Is Jodie ready to make that leap of faith into marriage? With its cliffhanger ending, this is one for the anthologies. Sometimes it’s parents and children who don’t know each other. Jaynee, a troubled teenager, is threatening to shoot a lion in the Detroit zoo ("Westland"). Her propensity for violence shocks Earl, her harried parent, but not as much as her diary revelations. Borderline crazies figure prominently: A guilty liberal tries to help three of them, all homeless ("Shelter"). Melissa tells an intruder he’s a devil, though a really minor one, before sleeping with him ("Ghosts"). That’s pure Baxter—he’s forthright but unpredictable, a sweet combination. "Royal Blue" is not a 9/11 story, as first appears: It’s the coming-of-age of a pretty boy after his girlfriend’s miscarriage. The encounter of a desperate recovering alcoholic and a paroled murderer, next-door neighbors, should read grim, but "The Old Murderer" is so fast-paced it’s oddly buoyant.

The uncanny power of Baxter’s work derives from his knowledge of our secret selves as well as our surface ones.

Pub Date: Jan. 11, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-37921-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2010

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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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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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