Sometimes dour but insightful fiction that will spark readers’ emotions.



The characters in Perlstein’s (The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht, 2017, etc.) short story collection endure tragedy and betrayal in a generally gloomy world.

The book opens with “Beautiful!” in which Californian and former astronaut Hunter celebrates his 80th birthday. Since his celestial voyage long ago, he’s been depressed, as humanity seems insignificant compared to the vast galaxies. Now he hopes to make a difference in the world with a charitable act, but it may not be enough. Numerous other tales, most of which are also set in the Golden State, are likewise grim. Some characters merely recall a sordid past; in “Two Suitcases by the Side of the Road,” for instance, the narrator, a writer, invents a fictional backstory for the owner of the titular, abandoned suitcases, which evoke memories of his own failed relationships. Other stories involve people deceiving friends or lovers. In the title tale, pals Jeffrey Hyer, Gary White, Arnie, and Steve have a road trip reunion and discover that their shared history is filled with disloyalty. In the standout “Really, Do We Have to Know Everything?” Scott, a stay-at-home dad, puts a tracking app on his children’s phones as a precautionary measure in case of kidnapping—but then he considers using it to investigate his wife’s suspected infidelity. Perlstein occasionally links his stories together with allusions to earlier events as well as recurring characters, including all four friends in “Big Truth”; the most memorable of these is White, a successful, pompous painter/sculptor who often refers to himself in the third person. Readers will breeze through Perlstein’s relatively short tales, some of which are only a few pages long. Despite the collection’s somber characters and plot turns, it’s more engaging than it is dismal, as it offers fables with clearly discernible morals. Californians Liz and Mel of “Taj Mahal” can’t escape constant reminders of their deceased son even when they’re in India; it’s a sad but profound revelation that makes it clear that mourning requires time and patience. The author also incorporates myriad biblical references, most notably a contemporary update on the story of Job (“The Satan and God Go Double or Nothing”) and an Adam and Eve parody (“The First Fashionistas”). The latter is indicative of the author’s sense of humor, which is even present in stories that ultimately turn dark—such as “Twins Under the Skin,” which begins with an employee and a manager at a 24-hour Biggie-Mart debating the definition of the term “Friday night” during a Thursday overnight shift. Perlstein also mutes the few instances of violence; a father in “Prescribed Burns” searches for an outlet for his son’s aggressive tendencies, and in “Medium-Boiled,” a man tries to subdue his “dark side” after his girlfriend leaves him. The author consistently offers meticulous, indelible descriptive passages. In “Max,” for example, the young narrator aptly illustrates the carefree nature of childhood: “When you’re ten, the world of adults is as complex as a cobweb and just as weightless.”

Sometimes dour but insightful fiction that will spark readers’ emotions.

Pub Date: March 27, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5320-7145-4

Page Count: 270

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: April 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

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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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