Chock-full of emotional insight and comic verve, Unferth’s beguiling stories are not to be missed.


A stunning debut collection from Unferth (Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, 2011, etc.), in which a maverick cast of lonely characters wades through life’s uncertainties.

Unferth, whose collection of short-short fiction, Minor Robberies (2007), was published by McSweeney’s, re-emerges with 39 poignant, sharp-edged stories that cut right to the bone of the human psyche with precision and grace. The collection opens with the Pushcart Prize–winning “Likeable,” a story ironically about a woman who is so “inconveniently unlikable…she will have to be shoved into a hole and left there.” While this woman sadly capitulates to her fate, the rest of the books’ inhabitants don’t fold so willingly (at least not without a fight or the haphazard adoption of two turtles). They’re disenchanted, mordantly obsessive, delusional, yet nevertheless utterly relatable in their indefatigable search for love and acceptance, each one quietly shouldering “the familiar slow-burn panic that you were doing nothing with your life, had not lived up to your ‘potential,’ or, worse, you had and it changed nothing.” In “Flaws,” a couple’s listless gossiping devolves into a gloves-off screaming match (succinctly encapsulated in one paragraph). In another story, a father, ignoring the glaring chasms in his family life, signs up for a prison mentoring program and becomes deeply invested in a one-sided relationship. Meanwhile, the title story’s protagonist, a clairvoyant adjunct professor—who can predict how long someone has to live—arrives at a moral crossroads when she falls in love with her failing student. Prickly dilemmas, physical and existential, abound in these allegorical stories, each terrifically mundane and told with an exquisite restraint that drolly captures the inherent hope of humanity, or, “the sheer human stubbornness that causes those worse grab hold and climb back into the world of the living, ‘optimism,’ one might call it.”

Chock-full of emotional insight and comic verve, Unferth’s beguiling stories are not to be missed.

Pub Date: March 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-55597-768-9

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2017

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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