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 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 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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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: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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