With this plainspoken, highly readable coming-of-age story, McManus adds another winning hand to a growing body of work on...

THE EDUCATION OF A POKER PLAYER

A boy copes with Catholicism, nuns, and such forbidden fruit as girls and gambling in a collection of closely related stories.

In these seven probably autobiographical tales, McManus (Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, 2010, etc.) follows the thoughts and urges of Vincent Killeen as he ages from 9 to 17 in the 1950s and '60s. Vince is initially devout enough to feel he may have a “calling” to the priesthood, which would delight his grandmother and spare the entire family any time in purgatory, according to Catholic lore. He also appreciates baseball and language, tales of an older relative’s hitch in the navy, the provocative lyrics of “Louie Louie,” the sight of Laura Langan’s bare legs two pews ahead of him at Sunday Mass, and the first inklings of his skill at poker. McManus’ writing is deceptively artless: mundane details related in Vince’s slowly maturing voice track the unexceptional life of a middle-class Irish-American Catholic family in a Chicago suburb, with the obligatory JFK portrait on the wall and the obliging production of numerous offspring. Yet the author gradually forms these common facets of simple people into a sharp, intimate portrait of an intelligent, inquiring mind embracing, then questioning, and inevitably pulling away from the beliefs and strictures of home life. McManus, a novelist and nonfiction writer, has played poker for high stakes in Las Vegas, and in Positively Fifth Street (2003), he wrote a classic about the game with riveting descriptions of poker hands. He achieves that again here in two sessions that have Vince facing very different opponents and challenges. The ironic and irreverent humor mined from Catholic arcana may bemuse the uninitiated, and anyone might question the author’s impulse to catalog Vince’s every erection. But then Catholics probably had little problem with the parallel challenges of Portnoy’s Complaint.

With this plainspoken, highly readable coming-of-age story, McManus adds another winning hand to a growing body of work on the hearts and souls lost to the game of poker.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-938160-85-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: BOA Editions

Review Posted Online: July 20, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

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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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