DRIVING THE HEART

AND OTHER STORIES

A debut collection of 13 stories, most of them portraying the unhappy domestic life of contemporary Americans. Brown seems to have set out to reverse Tolstoy’s famous dictum by offering us a group of unhappy families that appear remarkably similar, at least from the outside. Mad or terminally ill mothers predominate, as do drug-addicted children going through detox, and Vietnam vets who never quite pulled themselves together. “Thief” is a young man’s recollections of his adolescence, during which he responded to the trauma of a mother’s mental illness through kleptomania—even going so far as to steal presents in order to impress girls. “Animal Stories” is also a son’s account, this one being the reminiscence of his mother’s death of a brain tumor in the summer of 1972. In “Dog Lover,” a heroin addict and his blind Vietnam vet father—both haunted by the death of the mother and wife who killed herself years ago—argue religion and live unhappily together amid a litter of puppies being raised by the son. “Detox” portrays life inside a county detoxification center where one of the inmates plots an escape. “The Coroner’s Report” describes the daily routines of a county coroner as he trains a new employee in the art of informing survivors of the deaths of their loved ones, while the title piece relates the experiences of an ambulance driver who delivers human organs to hospitals in time (he hopes) for successful transplant operations. “The Sadness of the Body” proceeds in a somewhat more postmodern vein, examining in mock-medical terminology (—The spleen suffers from terminally low self- esteem. It refuses to talk to the rest of the body—) the physiology of an alcoholic Vietnam vet who, back in 1968, “was in charge of the body count.” New wine that needs aging: overwritten, ponderous, and crammed with the sorts of platitudes (—It seems that what we know makes us sad and what we don—t know is who we are—) that only undergraduates could find profound.

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-393-04721-0

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1999

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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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