LIVES OF THE CIRCUS ANIMALS

Straight and gay lives share the stage in a good-natured Broadway valentine refreshingly free of theatrical excess.

Anyone whose misbegotten past includes time on or around the boards will recognize the loving accuracy Bram (The Notorious Dr. August, 2000, etc.) brings to his often hilarious take on love spurned, mismatched, and rearranged on and way-off Broadway. The tales are hung on the lives of playwright Caleb Doyle and his sister Jessie. Caleb has not recovered from the loss of his lover to AIDS and is seriously blocked following the savaging in the New York Times of his last play. Jessie cannot bring herself to return the love of Frank Earp, an administrative assistant whose theatrical passions have been channeled to freelance directing. Jessie, who loves the theater but lacks a role, has found work managing the life of distinguished, openly gay, middle-aged British actor Henry Lewse (readers may supply their own models), who is happily making big bucks in a typically dumb and successful musical remake of a screwball comedy film. Lewse, who steals every scene he’s in, has, through the miracle of commercial phone sex, stumbled into the fantasies of Caleb Doyle and, through believable coincidence (theater’s a very small world) the ambitions of Caleb’s beautiful, thick, actor ex-boyfriend Toby Vogler, who, if he only had a few emotions to remember, just might have a future. All of these characters have, one way or another, come into contact with Kenneth Prager, the second-string Times critic who shot down Caleb’s play and who has been assigned a story on Henry Lewse. With the smooth machinations of a Feydeau farce, the progresses, regressions, and couplings lead steadily to Caleb’s big birthday party in the penthouse he may have to sell if he can’t get a good play going. Among his guests will be his little Irish Catholic police widow mum packing heat.

Slick, smart, and funny.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-06-054253-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2003

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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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