SHORT STORIES ARE NOT REAL LIFE

Fourteen stories from the prolific Slavitt (Lives of the Saints, 1990, etc.)—a mix of a few experiments with a number of loosely plotted meditations on the long-term depression that follows a midlife divorce and intergenerational tension. The title story, including footnotes, does a ``Lost in the Funhouse'' Barthian turn in an account of a writing teacher in New York who is faced with urban brutality—both in his own experience and through the fiction of his students. ``The Imposter'' is a lively, inventive story in which the narrator, a writer's brother, learns in life why writers enjoy playing roles, because it creates ``a kind of fun, a peculiar liveliness and intensity, that comes with imposture.'' ``Grandfather'' is a moving story about a narrator, divorced from a still-bitter woman, who returns to attend his grandson's bris and comes to a reconciliation with his feelings. Several of these family meditations work metaphorically and occasionally dazzle with their aphoristic prose: ``The trick, though,'' says the narrator of ``Simple Justice,'' a tale about forgetting the familial past, ``may be not to pay too close attention, to see things without looking too hard.'' Though a few of the pieces seem sketched out without being fully developed, they maintain a hard-edged balance between humor and despair for the most part. While an experiment like ``Instructions''—a list—can be clever and amusing but too smug (``I'm being the smart-ass author, screwing around and playing games''), others like ``Conflations''—an elderly relative mistakes a man for his dead father—capture the rhyme and reason of life's messiness. ``Wherever you are, that's the foreground, and you never get to that wonderful faraway place where lives all come together.'' Slavitt, while repetitive and too leisurely at times, is worth reading for moments such as that.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 1991

ISBN: 0-8071-1665-3

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Louisiana State Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1991

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

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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