LEVITATION

FIVE FICTIONS

Of the five fictions here, only one commands, by breadth and pacing, great attention; yet all must be said to fairly drum with Ozick's insistent and constant theme: tradition. In "Levitation," a married couple—he Jew, she Gentile, both second-rate novelists—give a second-rate party which culminates in an inability to square the two's separate inherited visions. "Shots" concerns a woman photographer commissioned to follow around an historian with a too-good-to-be-true wife; it's an awkward story that loses itself in its own flailing ironies. "From a Refugee's Notebook" offers two quick allegories (one on spoiled American women) that are as subtle as air-horns. And in "Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife," a 34-year-old, single woman (a lawyer working for the city) dreams of Eden and her forebears—a need for the past that's keyed to the lack of significant reality she finds around her; like the description of Puttermesser's hair ("layered waves from scalp to tip, like imbricated roofing tile"), the story is wiry and stubborn. Moreover, all four of these fictions are, ultimately, sticks—thorny, sharply thin sticks that Ozick uses to beat the reader: for the crimes of being too forgetful, too trendy, too ecumenical, or too homogenized, we receive one lash after another of her bitten-off, terse, nervously intelligent style. By way of contrast, however, there is the concluding and longest story, "The Laughter of Akiva"—about an English-born bachelor headmaster of a Long Island Jewish-day school who falls prey to the sin of pride-in-blood, yet totally misunderstands the deeper knowledge contained in mother-love. Here the curled scorn rolls out and fascinates us above and beyond its sting; beautifully (if attenuatedly) written, with perfect atmosphere, the story has an unscrolled irony to it, a straining toward real knowledge characteristic of Ozick at her best (as in The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories). . . but missing, unfortunately, from the rest of this new collection.

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 1980

ISBN: 0815603533

Page Count: 172

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 5, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1980

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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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