A third collection from Johnson (Distant Friends, 1990, etc.) offers 13 tight, knowing, well-told stories. The tales are set in the New South, a land of fallen aristocrats and upstart money. It's this incisive presentation of class that lends Johnson's work a certain caustic European tenor, making him sound sometimes like Chekhov, sometimes like Ibsen, often like Cheever or James. In ``A House of Trees,'' a drunken, unemployed father shakes his petulant son out of a tree, crippling him for life; in ``Hemingway's Cats,'' a honeymoon in the Florida Keys is complicated when the bridegroom's father shows up unannounced with some bad news for the bride; and ``In the Deep Woods'' features a financially overwhelmed father groping for recognition in front of an overly sensitive son, this time while hunting. Johnson doesn't limit himself to little boys' yarns, either: ``Scene of the Crime'' finds a daughter avenging herself against her materialistic mother, and ``Little Death'' explores the theme of abortion through the experiences of a homely teenager. The author also showcases an affection for the neo-gothic family so beloved of southern writers: ``Evening at Home'' opens with a minor kitchen accident and closes with a shared, silent sense of grief between father and daughter over how strange Mom has become. Johnson also works some artful variations on the theme of Catholic guilt. ``Sanctity'' dismantles the horrors of a parochial school, while ``Leavetaking,'' with its insightful summary of a crumbling young marriage, reads like early Updike. Then there are the booze stories, such as ``Last Night,'' in which a solitary drinker, who has just gone on the wagon, falls disastrously off when he's forced to spend time with his wine-swilling, duplicitous girlfriend. The Walker Percy-esque title piece is, unfortunately, the weakest, an excuse to muse existential on a chance movie-theater encounter. Exceptionally strong, confident writing from an author who shows his literary roots while gracefully blending ancient anxieties and modern concerns.

Pub Date: July 16, 1996

ISBN: 0-8018-5375-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1996

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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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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