Thoughtful and restrained work from a writer clearly unintimidated by the family name.

OLD GIRLFRIENDS

STORIES

Family, infidelity and faith anchor the carefully constructed stories in a collection by John Updike’s son.

Updike (stories: Out on the Marsh, 1988, etc.) seems uninterested in distancing himself from some of the favorite themes of his late father. Indeed, an occasional story evokes the romantic machinations of novels like Couples. In “Geranium,” a young man becomes increasingly obsessed with the relationship between a fellow boarder and their married landlady. “Kinds of Love” follows one man’s complicated efforts to escape his family on a Sunday to attend church with his mistress, wrestling with all the guilt and compulsion that such an effort entails. In “Adjunct,” a glum, self-loathing English 101 teacher pursues a relationship with one of his students, even while he’s aware of the pursuit’s utter futility. Though David can’t claim John’s graceful style and psychological depth, his prose is pleasantly unfussy and direct. “In the Age of Convertibles” is a knowing portrait of a teenager’s growing wisdom about girls, and about how he can shift his place in the family’s pecking order. Updike is clearly in his comfort zone when he’s writing about lovelorn men, and his command gets wobblier when he takes different tacks. “A Word with the Boy” turns on an incident in which London police briefly separate the narrator from his darker-skinned son; it’s a thin premise, and the story stumbles to a moralizing close. That simplistic shape is echoed in “Love Songs From America,” whose narrator visits his wife’s home in an unnamed African country with their son; though Updike’s observations of the culture are well-written, there’s little story to speak of. In “The Last of the Caribs,” the author successfully merges his interest in writing about both romantic need and culture clashes. Following a married man foolishly flirting with a young woman in the Lesser Antilles, he displays a rich knowledge of the Caribbean landscape and nicely captures the quiet despair of the protagonist.

Thoughtful and restrained work from a writer clearly unintimidated by the family name.

Pub Date: July 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-312-55001-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2009

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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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