Satire both hilarious and profound, peppered with a few near-misses that border on the glib.

THE MYSTERIOUS SECRET OF THE VALUABLE TREASURE

STORIES

Comic Southern writer’s debut collection presents a sardonic view of the tics and foibles of the odd, inept, unhappy and underemployed.

Pendarvis’s collection includes two tales focusing on superheroes, one fictitious literary catalogue, a made-up “contributors” section, a few letters to the editor and the titular novella, among other things. The result is a charming pastiche of Southern wit, with characters evoked through humorous asides and eccentric tendencies. Pendarvis adopts a dry-eyed, aw-shucks tone through consciously amateur writing, highlighting the characters’ endearing humanity even as it gently ribs them. “The Pipe” sets up a drama of Beckettian absurdity, as two characters, known only as “the security guard” and “the paramedic,” guard the air pipe that feeds a radio deejay buried alive as a promotional stunt. The deadbeat paramedic and the naïve though noble security guard have bizarre brushes with love, loneliness, sex, power and death, all in the service of someone who may or may not be at the pipe’s other end. The other standout piece is the novella, whose protagonist is an amateur historian attempting to pen the dreary story of his nowhere town, Newberry, after being fired from his job. His efforts and academic pretensions are hilariously inept, though he maintains an incongruent optimism as he suffers derision at home, lusts creepily after his young sister-in-law and encounters innumerable miscreants who mean him various degrees of harm. While the literary jabs found here are highly entertaining (one disgruntled reviewer of an invented book remarks, “Kirkus Reviews is going to eat this shit up”), it’s the depictions of fragile humanity and the subtle social critiques that are truly affecting.

Satire both hilarious and profound, peppered with a few near-misses that border on the glib.

Pub Date: Nov. 18, 2005

ISBN: 1-59692-128-5

Page Count: 198

Publisher: MacAdam/Cage

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2005

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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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