Literary stories exploring the dark, cruel borders of realism.


Howard (Tea of Ulaanbaatar, 2011) returns with a collection of seven short stories.

Howard’s imaginative and mortality-obsessed collection opens with “Darkstar,” a pre-apocalyptic tale set in dank, dystopian Dublin. Mankind awaits a star’s Earth-destroying gamma-ray burst. In lushly descriptive writing—“The web was backlit by the sunset and beads of moisture glistened along its quivering, intricate symmetry”—a young man called Sailor scrounges, nearly starves, becomes half-blind and finds love, solace and understanding only from Liz, a leg-brace–wearing girl whose appliance is surely symbolic of something twisted. “Intelligent People Speaking Reasonably” and “How to Make Millions in the Oil Market” separately explore angst, loss and PTSD. In the first, Chavez and Berryman, wounded Iraqi War veterans awaiting discharge, contemplate their captain’s death. In the second, a contract security guard survives a firefight in Iraq, the culmination of which haunts him past divorce and into the arms of a young college student. “Space Is Kindness” follows a jaded reporter as he visits the plane crash site where a state governor has died. His rain-soaked journey becomes a trip through cynicism and ennui shadowed against his companion’s nihilism. “Son of Man,” fourth in the collection, finds taciturn Vietnam veteran Buzz working as a mechanic for the murderous Manson family. Buzz is a narc, a missive from a phantasmagoric government agency that realizes Charles Manson is the unintended spawn of an experiment gone rogue. The collection concludes with “Prince of the World,” a McCarthy-Blood-Meridian-brutal American frontier tale. In 1818, Labelle, half-breed “manchild” of “a scrubber of floors and a beggar and pickpocket and other things,” treks north from New Orleans after his mother’s death. He encounters mayhem, murder, lynchings at the hands of city mobs, trappers, rogue Shawnees, boatmen and river pirates before he’s finally caught up in a merciless, barbarous tribal war— “leaking red waistcoats…limbs mangled in impossible poses.”

Literary stories exploring the dark, cruel borders of realism.

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-60980-438-1

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Seven Stories

Review Posted Online: Nov. 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2012

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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