One of our best young writers just keeps getting better.



Media overkill and other forms of contemporary paranoia and mendacity take their lumps in this third collection from the brainy postmodernist author (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, 1999, etc.).

The most conventional of its eight impressively varied stories is “The Surfing Channel,” the raffish satirical account of trendy Style magazine’s research into the personal history of a popular sculptor who works in the medium of human excrement. How he produces his art is about what you’d expect (“Maybe his colon somehow knows things his conscious mind doesn’t”), and Wallace’s deadpan depiction of his manufactured celebrity is both hilarious and, uh, fundamentally silly. Elsewhere, we encounter an ad agency manipulating public hunger for a cholesterol-laden product (“Mr. Squishy”), a possibly suicidal yuppie devoted to obsessive analysis of his own “fraudulence” (“Good Old Neon”), and the story (told in conversations overheard during a business flight) of an “omniscient child” born in a Third World rain forest and commercially exploited by his fellow villagers (“Another Pioneer”). But Wallace is as versatile as he is facile, capable of such contrasting stunners as a blistering vignette that describes in headlong charged prose the accidental severe burning of a toddler and his parents’ panicked efforts to save his life (“Incarnations of Burned Children”) and the volume’s two standout pieces. In “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” a depressed, lonely father sorrowfully recalls a violent episode at his son’s elementary school, an episode that the distracted boy survived almost without noticing it: a terrific story, in which the generation gap yawns unbridgeably. Then there’s “Oblivion,” the narrative of a 40-ish husband whose wife objects to his nonexistent snoring, leading him to an Orwellian Sleep Clinic, and to question everything he thinks he knows about himself. This ingenious anatomy of incompatibility perfectly illustrates Wallace’s genius for combining intellectual high seriousness and tomfoolery with compassionate insight into distinctively contemporary fears and neuroses.

One of our best young writers just keeps getting better.

Pub Date: June 8, 2004

ISBN: 0-316-91981-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2004

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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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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