ANTARCTICA

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

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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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

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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