A strong appetite for Southern shtick (if not for gruel itself) might enhance readers’ appreciation for the down-home whimsy...

DROWNING IN GRUEL

From South Carolina writer Singleton (Novel, 2005, etc.), a collection of 19 reprinted stories, some of them suffering from a slight case of the cutes.

The fictional hamlet of Gruel is one of those towns that time forgot, though it attempts various scams to attract tourists and boasts Victorian houses that speculators can buy for about five percent of what they would cost elsewhere. While some characters reappear from one story to another and keep showing up at the same old places, particularly Gruel BBQ and Roughhouse Billiards, there’s a surprising amount of mobility in this South Carolina town. Strangers find themselves drawn here for inexplicable reasons (or Victorian houses), while natives who left and vowed never to return somehow make their way back. Many of the characters have more education than the stereotypical small-town rube; a surprising number either work or have worked in academe (Singleton is a writing teacher). Thus, for every story like “Runt,” which depicts Sister the Wonder Dog and her record-setting litter of 24, there’s one like “The Novels of Raymond Carver,” which involves a made-up course on the noted short-story writer’s made-up book-length fiction. The guy who sells gas masks as the perfect Valentine’s Day present to protect the one you love in “Snipers” is balanced by the heart-attack victim who cuts a swathe through his neighbors’ backyards on a power lawnmower in “John Cheever, Rest in Peace,” a sardonic riff on “The Swimmer.” Perhaps the best story here is “Soldiers in Gruel,” which features an overeducated Northern woman who brings her brand of conceptual art to the annual car show and finds a deeper meaning than her schooling could ever have provided.

A strong appetite for Southern shtick (if not for gruel itself) might enhance readers’ appreciation for the down-home whimsy of these tales.

Pub Date: June 5, 2006

ISBN: 0-15-603061-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2006

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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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