It’s gratifying to put yourself in the hands of a veteran storyteller who knows what he’s doing—and is quietly secure in...

A modern master’s latest array of glittering tales offers the pleasures and solace of storytelling.

This is Johnson’s (The Way of the Writer, 2016, etc.) fourth collection, and as before, his stories can be as morally instructive as fables, as fancifully ingenious as Twilight Zone scripts, and as elegantly inscrutable as Zen riddles. In stories such as “The Weave,” in which a stylist seeks revenge by stealing valuable hair extensions from her former employer, and “Occupying Arthur Whitfield," in which a cab driver intends to commit larceny upon a seemingly truculent passenger, Johnson imparts wisdom with cunningly selective detail in both character and milieu; he can evoke the lingering residue of chemicals in the vacant beauty shop with just a few lines. Johnson is in immaculate control of the stories’ myriad settings, as in the ancient Greece of “The Cynic,” where Plato is dislodged from his smug certainties by Diogenes’ bug-eyed eccentricities. Johnson’s philosophical and spiritual erudition, most prominently displayed in such novels as Oxherding Tale (1982) and Dreamer (1998), also insinuates itself in to “Prince of the Ascetics,” in which a Buddhist monk discovers a “middle way,” and “Idols of the Cave,” in which a Muslim-American soldier’s conflict with a bigoted white officer while stationed in Afghanistan climaxes in the ruins of an ancient library. Johnson's whimsical side comes through in “Guinea Pig,” which extracts deeper tones and craftier implications from the hoary old science-fiction subgenre of “personality transfer.” The title story is in many ways the book’s most distinctive: It takes the form of a late-night conversation between the author and his late friend and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright August Wilson in the coffee shops and bars of Johnson’s Seattle hometown. Even here, there’s an unexpected twist, but, as with the other tales, what’s even more unexpected is how this startling development emerges with such unassuming control.

It’s gratifying to put yourself in the hands of a veteran storyteller who knows what he’s doing—and is quietly secure in what he’s teaching.

Pub Date: May 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-8438-3

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 4, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018




A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004


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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