THE VIRGINITY OF FAMOUS MEN

Tenderly portrayed and sharply observed. A rich collection.

Sneed follows her recent novel (Paris, He Said, 2015, etc.) with a new, wide-ranging collection of short stories.

Bad behavior is a touch point for the stories in Sneed’s new collection—not scorchingly bad behavior but the potentially more interesting acts at the borders of societal decency. Often, the questionable quality of her characters’ choices is something that comes to light as the story progresses, either to the characters themselves or to a close observer. “Beach Vacation” tracks a mother as she recognizes, with despair, the entitled attitude of her teenage son. “Couplehood Jubilee” centers on a young woman whose loved ones are warmly indulgent of her entitled ideas. Protagonists in “Clear Conscience” and “Words that Once Shocked Us” are possibly complicit witnesses to infidelity. Both also share a sense of having reached middle age only to find themselves emotionally stunted by recent minor disasters, a theme that is present in much of the collection. The vulnerable girls in “Five Rooms” and “Older Sister” are in need of guidance and care that they find hard to attain. Many of the stories hint at the ridiculous or otherworldly; the title character from “Roger Weber Would Like to Stay” is in fact a ghost, but everything else in the story is perfectly mundane. “The First Wife,” “The Prettiest Girls,” and "The Virginity of Famous Men" are each narrated by a Hollywood-adjacent character and hint at an entire culture with a different moral code, the title story revisiting the family at the heart of Sneed’s first novel, Little Known Facts (2013). A melancholy floats through the collection like Roger Weber through walls. Though most stories stop short of promising hope, readers will find themselves invested in these worlds and lives.

Tenderly portrayed and sharply observed. A rich collection.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-620-40695-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

Categories:

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

Categories:

SIGHTSEEING

STORIES

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

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