FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE

Not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure, but a pleasing foray in short-short fiction.

Centrifugal stories, supershort and superpithy, by avant-gardist Williams.

In Williams' stories, a non sequitur has the same weight as an ordinary logical proposition, as if to suggest that either we are very illogical creatures indeed or that no one is really listening to anyone else anyway. So it is that in the opening tale, the narrator, poolside at an Illinois Marriott, implores the lifeguard to notice that swimmers are drowning, to which he replies, “I don’t speak Chinese.” Is it that the swimmers are Mandarin or that the characters are swimming their way through a dream? In the next story, a woman, clad in a “boiled woolen cloak,” dies on a roadway, occasioning the observation on the part of our narrator that “her facial features are remarkably symmetrical, expressing vigor and vulnerability.” Even when Williams’ characters are engaged in more or less quotidian acts, from washing the dishes to pleasuring a partner, there is an element of jerky oddness to their behavior, as if they were imperfectly programmed robots or ghosts—in short, ordinary humans, clumsily self-absorbed. Williams writes precise, elegant, and usually very short sentences, building a story piece by piece and conveying a great deal with just a few details; in the shortest of the pieces, weighing in at just 48 words, a woman on the way to drowning—and not a Chinese speaker this time—marvels that the water of the ocean “tasted like a cold, salty variety of her favorite payang congou tea.” The most perfect non sequitur? “My fault. Go fuck herself.” A little goes a long way: this is a book to sip from, not to devour whole. Charged with meaning, every word carrying more than its weight, this is a series of provocations inviting us to look at the world a little differently from before.

Not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure, but a pleasing foray in short-short fiction.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-940450-84-1

Page Count: 136

Publisher: McSweeney’s

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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SIGHTSEEING

STORIES

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

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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