A debut collection of eight stories, most portraying the extremes of loneliness that inhabit the souls of modern Americans in out-of-the-way places. “Sy Johnson trudged onto the frozen lake toting the dismembered body of his lover on a red plastic sled.” With opening lines like this, you have to be prepared for anything, and the world that Mueller offers is far from sedate. In fact, it’s downright dangerous—not only for victims like Sy Johnson’s gay lover in “Ice Breaking” (who killed himself by kneeling in front of an oncoming train) but for the survivors who have to cope with the mess (like Sy Johnson, who also chooses suicide rather than carry on alone). The lost-love scenario is continued in “Zero,” the story of a gay businessman bankrupted by his boyfriend’s AIDS bills. In “Torturing Creatures at Night,” an obese teenager takes out his frustrations on the entire neighborhood by wandering through the backyards of his suburban town with a remote control, changing television channels through people’s windows. “Birds” is the story of Amanda, an aspiring poet who works as a stripper to pay for her medical expenses. A lesbian who lives with her girlfriend Larissa and the latter’s two sons, Amanda is perfectly happy stripping for men until her encounter with a deranged customer ends in tragedy. “The Night My Brother Worked the Heater” describes the unhappy relationship between Agnes Agnug, a young Aleut, and Larry Olseth, a college boy who takes a summer job in the salmon cannery overseen by Agnes’s brother. And the title story is a reminiscence of small-town madness—replete with animal pornography, murder, unhappy marriages, and sexual awakenings—recalled by the son of a renowned surgeon. Nicely drawn albeit perhaps depressing portraits of the freaks, malcontents, and lumpen weirdos who lurk on the margins of respectable society.

Pub Date: March 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-87951-925-8

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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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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Superb stylist L’Amour returns (End of the Drive, 1997, etc.), albeit posthumously, with ten stories never seen before in book form—and narrated in his usual hard-edged, close-cropped sentences, jutting up from under fierce blue skies. This is the first of four collections of L’Amour material expected from Bantam, edited by his daughter Angelique, featuring an eclectic mix of early historicals and adventure stories set in China, on the high seas, and in the boxing ring, all drawing from the author’s exploits as a carnival barker and from his mysterious and sundry travels. During this period, L’Amour was trying to break away from being a writer only of westerns. Also included is something of an update on Angelique’s progress with her father’s biography: i.e., a stunningly varied list of her father’s acquaintances from around the world whom she’d like to contact for her research. Meanwhile, in the title story here, a missionary’s daughter who crashes in northern Asia during the early years of the Sino-Japanese War is taken captive by a nomadic leader and kept as his wife for 15 years, until his death. When a plane lands, she must choose between taking her teenaged son back to civilization or leaving him alone with the nomads. In “By the Waters of San Tadeo,” set on the southern coast of Chile, Julie Marrat, whose father has just perished, is trapped in San Esteban, a gold field surrounded by impassable mountains, with only one inlet available for anyone’s escape. “Meeting at Falmouth,” a historical, takes place in January 1794 during a dreadful Atlantic storm: “Volleys of rain rattled along the cobblestones like a scattering of broken teeth.” In this a notorious American, unnamed until the last paragraph, helps Talleyrand flee to America. A master storyteller only whets the appetite for his next three volumes.

Pub Date: May 11, 1999

ISBN: 0-553-10963-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1999

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