Carefully worked tales that are as good as many and better than most.

ANTARCTICA

A first collection from Irish-born Keegan spans the Atlantic, touching down in rural Ireland and the southern US—with results often familiar or stretched-for, yet deftly done and alluringly readable.

In the title story, a happily married woman wants to find out what it’s like to have sex with someone else—and does so indeed, in a psychological clunker that crosses Hitchcock with O. Henry while remaining ever-intriguing to the eye. A near-wizardry of language and detail, too, closes the volume, with “The Ginger Rogers Sermon,” when a pubescent girl in Ireland, sexually curious, brings about the suicide of a hulking lumberman in a tone-perfect but morally inert story. In between are longer and shorter, greater and lesser tales. Among the better are “Men and Women,” about a suffering Irish farmwife who at last rebels against a cruelly domineering husband; the southern-set “Ride If You Dare,” about a couple who shyly meet after running personals ads; and “Stay Close to the Water’s Edge,” about a Harvard student who despises—and is despised by—his millionaire stepfather. Psychologically more thin or commonplace are “Storms,” told by an Irish daughter whose mother went mad; “Where the Water’s Deepest,” a snippet about an au pair afraid of “losing” her charge; or “The Singing Cashier”—based on fact, we’re rather pointlessly told—about a couple who, unbeknownst to their neighbors, commit “hideous acts on teenage girls.” Keegan’s best include the more maturely conceived “Passport Soup,” about a man devoured by guilt and grief after his daughter goes missing while in his care; “Quare Name for a Boy,” in which a young woman, pregnant by a single-fling boyfriend whom she no longer has an interest in, determines that she’ll go on into motherhood without him; and the nicely sustained “Sisters”—one dutiful and plain, the other lovely and self-indulgent—who come to a symbolically perfect end.

Carefully worked tales that are as good as many and better than most.

Pub Date: July 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-87113-779-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 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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