Wonderfully involving and intelligent work, from a strikingly gifted new writer.

TROUBLEMAKER

AND OTHER SAINTS

With rude wit and raw emotional force, an impressive first collection depicts the complex and combative interrelationships of three Chinese-American families.

Eleven linked tales comprise a round-robin assortment of vivid glimpses of cultural and generational displacement and conflict, in both America and Hong Kong (at around the time of the “Handover,” marking independence from Great Britain)—beginning with the story of racially mixed teenager Laurel’s struggles with her reputation as a high school “Nobody” and ending (in “Thief”) when her boyfriend bungles a cat burglary during their Asian “vacation.” The intervening pieces focus in turn on such variously troubled characters as Laurel’s physician Georgianna Wong, married to a black man and burdened by her family’s old-world attitudes and imperatives (in the brilliantly constructed “Doctor”); a conservative “Mama” quietly attempting to arrange a marriage for her headstrong “bi” daughter (“All her life she’s had too many choices”); and a promiscuous “Beauty” who looks for excitement, if not love, among the personals ads, and sees herself with stunned clarity when her cousin’s brutal fiancé accosts her. The sense of traditional ways of behavior disintegrating and of families helplessly poised at one another’s throats gathers tremendous power, as Chiu weaves gracefully among her characters’ several stories. The pressure, for instance, that a high-speed new international economy exerts on fragile marriages and other “arrangements” is dramatized crisply in “Gentleman” and “Trader”—while the unforeseen consequences of ever-widening rifts between parents and children generate revealing drama in the story of a teenaged “Troublemaker” whose impulsive act of violence brings him eventually to a sobered encounter with a world far larger than any he has imagined, and especially in “Copycat,” where the “losses” of one child to suicide and another to Buddhism underscore the fragility of a truly “mixed” marriage.

Wonderfully involving and intelligent work, from a strikingly gifted new writer.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-399-14715-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2001

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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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