Abrasive, accusatory, despairing and, more than often enough, quite unforgettable fiction.

A BETTER ANGEL

STORIES

Illness, loss and grief assume ingeniously arresting forms in this short-story collection from a uniquely gifted author who is also a practicing pediatrician and divinity-school student.

Adrian (The Children’s Hospital, 2006, etc.) once again voices the preoccupation with denying death that was so prominent in his sui generis debut novel, Gob’s Grief (2001). Nine often harrowing tales explore the darkness within children rendered older than their years with an intensity reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce and a penchant for fablelike indirection that echoes Angela Carter, with an occasional whiff of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s insistent symbolism. The obsessiveness of Adrian’s fiction reveals itself in recurrent narrative patterns. This method emerges clearly in “High Speeds,” which depicts an intellectually precocious boy coping with his father’s death in a plane crash (during a drug run), his nowhere mother and his deeply disturbed younger brother by concealing himself inside a rebellious fantasy world inspired by the loopy Martian adventure novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Similarly outré protagonists crop up frequently. “The Vision of Peter Damien” shows a boy who seems immune to illnesses afflicted by omens derived from the incidents of 9/11 (repeatedly channeled in several stories) that promise a cleansing apocalypse. In the title story, a grown man caring for his dying father is visited and abused by a quarrelsome angel. And in “Why Antichrist?” a boy hoping to commune with his dead father accidentally summons Satan instead. An overload of suffering little ones who develop similar otherworldly traits, plus numerous sets of twins and doppelgängers, edge the collection perilously close to risibility. But Adrian’s best pieces will haunt you unmercifully: “The Sum of Our Parts” (disembodied spirit of a suicide prowls the hospital ward); “Stab” (separated Siamese twin represses the loss of his brother by joining a deranged girl’s killing spree); and “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death” (stories compiled by the surviving bearer of horrific birth defects).

Abrasive, accusatory, despairing and, more than often enough, quite unforgettable fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 12, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-374-28990-4

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2008

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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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

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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