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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2006



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




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

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