STORIES IN THE WORST WAY

Mordant debut collection of terse stories (some only a few paragraphs long), featuring a playful use of language in the service of a grim vision of contemporary life. Lutz's protagonists are, typically, obsessive catalogers of life's minutiae, going through the motions at vaguely delineated jobs, baffled by life, between relationships and wondering, as one puts it, ``at what point people become environments for one another to enter.'' All of them would agree with the harassed character who stops the narrator of ``When You Got Back'' on a parking lot to complain cryptically that ``there was something unutterably troubling and unfinished about what had happened.'' In these tales, of course, the important things have happened long ago, and they happened somewhere offstage. What Lutz offers is the aftermath. In ``Slops,'' a college professor in his ``shadowed, septic thirties,'' suffering from colitis, offers brief descriptions of the ways in which he keeps colleagues and students (``the whole faceless, rostered population of them'') at a distance. Indirectly, something larger, a sense of the haunted, hapless nature of the man, comes through. In ``Recessional,'' the narrator (``a shadow- slopping, chronically how-evering man'') finds himself increasingly unable to utter even the simplest commands, to communicate at all, or to take action, and is reduced to precisely describing even the smallest gestures of those around him, as if to recapture his rapidly evaporating self. The problem is that the language these figures use, the exact, even prissy, descriptive monologues common to the pieces, is at first startling but quickly, across the span of many tales, becomes rather deadening. And the disaffected figures here, who seem at first both deeply alarming and memorable, begin to seem too much alike. There's no doubt that Lutz offers a distinctive, disturbing vision of an anomic world. But a little of this vision goes a very long way.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42596-9

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1996

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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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