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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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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