Fourteen variously weird tales from the producing half of the Coen Brothers movie team. Though only one of the stories is titled “It Is an Ancient Mariner,” most seem to be told by somebody more determined to buttonhole his audience than to explain exactly what he has in mind. One of Coen’s two favorite subjects, as you’d expect from films like Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and Fargo, is seriously skewed annals of crime. “Cosa Minapolidan” chronicles the efforts of a clueless crime boss to establish his reputation after he migrates to the Twin Cities. “Destiny” follows the world’s worst boxer through his equally unsuccessful stint as a bedroom dick. “A Fever in the Blood” asks how another private eye copes after getting his ear bitten off. The title story tosses a California weights-and-measures man into a Japanese blackmail plot. Coen’s crime stories work up to climactic tableaux rather than resolutions, and therefore aren’t all that different from his other stories, which focus on the psychopathology of everyday life. He follows a father on a hellishly ordinary camping trip with his two sons in “The Boys,” wonders what might happen to Hebrew school bullies in “The Old Country” and “I Killed Phil Shapiro,” and recounts selected events leading up to a long-suffering woman’s murder of her husband in “It Is an Ancient Mariner.” The deadpan, playfully grave tone throughout both kinds of stories is amusingly consistent, whether Coen is evoking Samuel Beckett or Philip Marlowe with a propeller atop his fedora. Surprisingly, three dialogues——Johnnie Ga-Botz,” “The Old Boys,” and the promisingly titled “Hecter Berlioz, Private Investigator”—are both less funny and less substantial. Maybe they need John Goodman and Frances Macdormand to fill in the blanks. A final surprise: “Red Wing,” the one story that tries to root weird abnormalities in weird normalities, is a bit too precious to come off. Like this debut collection as a whole, though, it’s a valuable portrait of the artist as a middle-aged neophyte.

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 1998

ISBN: 0-688-15914-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1998

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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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


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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