A stimulating, if intermittently opaque, collection of discursive stories and even less fully fictionalized humorous pieces from the savvy-surrealistic author of Infinite Jest (1996), etc. Though few of the tales here contain conventionally developed characters or narrative situations, most feature instantly recognizable generic figures. Embattled parents and siblings dominate such eerie concoctions as “Signifying Nothing,” in which a primal scene perhaps expressing male dominance has a lasting effect on a son’s relationship with his father; and a powerfully imaginative torrent of Oedipal rivalry spoken “On his Deathbed . . . [by] the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father . . . ,” “The Depressed Person” blandly skewers the culture of self-absorption and psychotherapy (while neatly mocking the latter’s passion for clinical precision), and “Datum Centurio” gets impressive comic mileage out of its brief parody of an etymological dictionary entry. Sex rears its comely, come-hither head in the chronicling (in “Forever Overhead—) of the perplexing sensations of adolescence in full eruption, and particularly in “Adult World,” a deliriously expanding Robert Coover—like fantasy spun from a young wife’s fretful confusion about pleasing-vs.- offending her docile husband. Most interesting are the title “stories,” divided into four installments scattered throughout, and variously delineating men’s alienation from, and misunderstanding of, women: the amputee who considers his mutilated arm a “Sexual Asset”; the self-consciousness of a hotel men’s-room attendant (wreathed in “The ghastly metastasized odors of continental breakfasts and business dinners”); the loves of Tristan and Isolde and Narcissus and Echo reshaped for the cable-TV audience by network executive “Agon M. Nar.” Postadolescent whimsy mingled with postmodernist horseplay: this isn’t a book that can be consumed in sizable chunks. Still, Wallace is a witty guide to the fragmented, paranoid Way We Live Now, someone perhaps poised to become the 21st-century’s Robert Benchley or James Thurber—both a frightening and a beguiling prospect.

Pub Date: May 28, 1999

ISBN: 0-316-92541-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2000

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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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