The wit and the engaging voice in the best of these stories aren’t enough to offset the impression that neither the third...

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HOW IT ENDED

NEW AND COLLECTED STORIES

From McInerney (The Good Life, 2006, etc.), a collection of 26 stories spanning some three decades.

The stories fall into two general categories. Many of the earliest ones provided the seeds for novels, and they remind us how fresh the young writer’s voice seemed when he made his breakthrough with Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Other stories similarly introduce the characters, voice and themes that would be extended in novels such as Story of My Life (1988), Brightness Falls (1992) and Model Behavior (1998). Comparatively disappointing are the later stories, many of them written since his 2000 story collection published in England (also titled How It Ended). Some of the same obsessions remain—glamour, drugs, nightlife, the endless redundancy of parties—yet the freshness of tone has curdled into cliché. It’s hard to determine whether the author is writing about protagonists who are pretentiously shallow, adulterous, often aspiring writers who have fallen short of their potential, or whether such protagonists are merely stand-ins for the writer. It’s also hard to write about these stories without giving the endings away, but too many of them rely on twists that O. Henry might have rejected as ironically glib, resolutions that are just too pat in their climactic revelations. Then there’s the sledgehammer imagery: A dog’s invisible fence serves as a metaphor for a couple’s sexual transgressions, a potbellied pig in the conjugal bed provides commentary on a husband’s proclivities. And so on.

The wit and the engaging voice in the best of these stories aren’t enough to offset the impression that neither the third nor the second acts of the novelist’s career have fulfilled the promise or equaled the accomplishment of the first.

Pub Date: April 10, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-26805-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2009

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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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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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