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


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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