Consistently fine, with a few flashes of greatness.



The male mind in all manners of disarray takes center stage in Amdahl’s solid collection.

The title story opens with a hockey player’s memory of having his teeth knocked out—the sort of thing that happens fairly often to Amdahl’s characters. Violence pervades these stories, from the struggles of a schizophrenic wrestler in “The Flyweight” to the brutal union battles of “The Free Fall” to a murderous Green Beret in “Narrow Road to the Deep North.” It’s less a subject, though, than a symptom. At root, these are rages born of impotence, the frustrated, furious flailings of men who have come to realize—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—that what they’ve long suspected is true: The world is at best an indifferent place, and they have little dominion over it. “The Barber-Chair” details the collapse of a relationship in the aftermath of a tragic sledding accident. In “The Volunteer,” a man finds himself setting fire to a pair of $50 bills he can scarcely spare in a desperate, doomed attempt at asserting himself after a physical humiliation. “Flight From California” follows a man as he drives cross-country with a dying dog in a flagging Escort, fleeing the state’s strange energy and the vague cloud of anxiety that has troubled him there. These are characters in transition, men forced, often suddenly, to contend with the gap between their delicate illusions of self and the realities at hand. Amdahl captures these battles in precise, gorgeous language, conjuring up in his best stories imagery that, with its beauty and physicality and violence, stays with the reader

Consistently fine, with a few flashes of greatness.

Pub Date: April 20, 2006

ISBN: 1-57131-051-7

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Milkweed

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2006

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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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