Assured and perceptive, offering a view of another Southland from Chandler’s and Didion’s.


Vignettes of Latino life in Los Angeles, reminiscent of Michael Tolkin’s The Player in its sardonic range.

It’s probably safe to guess that most teenage girls do not receive each evening, as if in a daily affirmation, the instruction, “Mija, when you kill a man, you must find the weak spot that all men have and make him suffer pain as he has never suffered before.” Mama’s advice, happily, isn’t often followed literally in these sketches, but in most of them the men are revealed to be riddled with weak spots indeed, measuring out their lives—as do the women, for that matter—in coffee spoons, or at least in visits to Starbucks. Coffee, indeed, seems to have healing powers in the opening story, "Good Things Happen at Tina's Café." At least Yuban does, the stuff that the polydactylic protagonist Félix quaffs in the diner owned by the alluring Tina, who, by the end of the story, may or may not exist, just as Félix’s ordinary reality may or may not be a decaffeinated illusion. Enigmatic and suggestive, the story is an exercise in a gritty form of magical realism, complete with funicular railway. The lead in Olivas’ (The Book of Want, 2011, etc.) title story is less likable, deservedly proud of his accomplishments—“Those punks had no pinche empire, that’s for goddamn sure”—and a complicated enough character to stand up to a little Rashomon-ish examination through the eyes of several people who know him, in interviews conducted on behalf of a writer who just happens to be named Olivas (“a real pendejo”). Though often playful, the collection ends on a grim note as a family is torn apart by the “great wall” that a certain president touts, in an endless audio loop over a detention center loudspeaker system, as one that Mexico will pay for, “and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me.”

Assured and perceptive, offering a view of another Southland from Chandler’s and Didion’s.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8165-3562-0

Page Count: 168

Publisher: Univ. of Arizona

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2017

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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