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

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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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A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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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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