Stories that serve as unvarnished, even fond, testaments to a tough, queer life.

GORDO

The pudgy, queer kid at the heart of these stories must navigate the harsh but loving community of migrant farm workers in rural California in the mid-1970s.

“I get picked on all the time for being fat, cuz I can’t throw a ball, for speaking English all wrong," Gordo confesses in “Fandango,” in which he confronts the rare phenomenon of an apparent gringo coming to work at the garlic fields. It’s an indication of how baffling Gordo finds the adult world that he doesn’t understand that someone with red hair can be a Mexican named Juan Diego. The redhead encourages young Gordo to down some tequila at a boisterous Saturday night fandango that Gordo would prefer to observe, sitting on an upturned bucket just outside the circle of men who are drinking and listening to a Vicente Fernández record. “It tasted awful, but now everybody likes me,” Gordo says. “For once, all the guys like me!” That party ends in two brothers having a violent brawl, one of them rushed to the emergency room by some of the other men even though they’re furious at the brothers for fighting so intensely. Gordo has grown up in “Raymundo the Fag,” by now the most talented hairstylist in Watsonville, such a star that Olga, his colleague, urges him to move to San Francisco or even just Salinas, which is at least a bigger town than Watsonville. “Half the culeros in this town have harassed or beat me, when they weren’t trying to get into my pants,” Ray tells her. “But I’m still here and taking their money to make their wives and girlfriends look foxy. That’s home, Olga. I’m not going nowhere.” Raygay, as he was known by his bullies when young, is asked to make one of his middle school tormentors look good in death; one side of Shy Boy’s head is punctured by a bullet and only Ray can make the wig look stunning. These stories are elemental and unfussy, their emotional hearts affecting and memorable.

Stories that serve as unvarnished, even fond, testaments to a tough, queer life.

Pub Date: Aug. 17, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-8021-5808-6

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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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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