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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

Did you like this book?