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

WAIT TILL YOU SEE ME DANCE

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 off...to 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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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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