Drain writes with fierce warmth about characters coping with crushing racism and poverty in this impressive debut.


A collection of linked short stories takes readers inside life in Chicago’s Stateway Gardens projects.

This debut book is set mostly in the 1980s in one of the South Side’s largest, most segregated housing projects. Stateway Gardens’ eight high-rise apartment blocks (built in the 1950s and demolished by 2007) formed a neighborhood notorious for grinding poverty, violence, drug use, and crime. Drain, who grew up in Chicago, writes intimately of the human experiences of those who lived there. The stories are linked by a group of characters who are relatives and friends of a pair of brothers, Tracy and Jacob. Tracy narrates several of the stories, beginning with “B.B. Sauce,” which takes place when he’s 6 years old. He’s the younger brother, “my mother’s smart child, but Jacob was the handsome one with the precious button nose and eyelashes that flapped like dove wings.” Their rivalry will play out for years. Neither boy’s father is in the picture, and several of the stories revolve around the heartbreaking irony of a single mother who works so many hours and jobs to support her children that she has no time to be with them. For Tracy, though, that’s just one of the realities of his world. It’s a world so harshly limited that in “Wet Paper Grass,” Tracy, Jacob, and their friend Jameel undertake a harrowing journey just to hang out on a community college campus miles away: “It was our summer resort….We imagined ourselves as those rich North Side white kids being sent to European cities we’d never manage to spell.” But just getting there puts eight-year-old Tracy in mortal peril. In “The Stateway Condo Gentrification,” teenage Tracy—still the smart one—realizes that in some ways living in the projects is “no different than living in those condos that weren’t more than four miles north of us on Michigan Avenue.…You could see the entire city from our fourteenth-floor ramp.” It turns out to be a prescient observation.

Drain writes with fierce warmth about characters coping with crushing racism and poverty in this impressive debut.

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-984818-16-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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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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Superb stylist L’Amour returns (End of the Drive, 1997, etc.), albeit posthumously, with ten stories never seen before in book form—and narrated in his usual hard-edged, close-cropped sentences, jutting up from under fierce blue skies. This is the first of four collections of L’Amour material expected from Bantam, edited by his daughter Angelique, featuring an eclectic mix of early historicals and adventure stories set in China, on the high seas, and in the boxing ring, all drawing from the author’s exploits as a carnival barker and from his mysterious and sundry travels. During this period, L’Amour was trying to break away from being a writer only of westerns. Also included is something of an update on Angelique’s progress with her father’s biography: i.e., a stunningly varied list of her father’s acquaintances from around the world whom she’d like to contact for her research. Meanwhile, in the title story here, a missionary’s daughter who crashes in northern Asia during the early years of the Sino-Japanese War is taken captive by a nomadic leader and kept as his wife for 15 years, until his death. When a plane lands, she must choose between taking her teenaged son back to civilization or leaving him alone with the nomads. In “By the Waters of San Tadeo,” set on the southern coast of Chile, Julie Marrat, whose father has just perished, is trapped in San Esteban, a gold field surrounded by impassable mountains, with only one inlet available for anyone’s escape. “Meeting at Falmouth,” a historical, takes place in January 1794 during a dreadful Atlantic storm: “Volleys of rain rattled along the cobblestones like a scattering of broken teeth.” In this a notorious American, unnamed until the last paragraph, helps Talleyrand flee to America. A master storyteller only whets the appetite for his next three volumes.

Pub Date: May 11, 1999

ISBN: 0-553-10963-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1999

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