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

THE KING OF LIGHTING FIXTURES

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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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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