Weak stories, artificial people, real horses.



First-timer Shepard writes here about people and horses: far more convincingly so with the horses.

A sentimental opener that strains credulity (“First Day She’d Never See”) is about a drug user who sells his last possession, his car, named for his drug-dead girlfriend. Readers can be pardoned, here and elsewhere, for demanding more weight and depth in Shepard’s people—as in the man in “Flaw in the Shelter” who, predictably, slips off the pitch of a roof and hangs there after trying to get a bird out of the chimney, counseling the while that “Immediacy was the only thing . . . worth recognizing as truth.” A young couple whose marriage is collapsing (“In the Open”) are so utterly unprepossessing—he shallow, she bitchy—that they’re just hooks to hang a story on, and the same is true in “We’ll Talk Later,” about a California couple trying to adapt to life in Virginia: a sorrow in the woman’s past is intended to give weight but fails to, remaining unrealized, while the husband, an independent filmmaker, is barely a cipher, however self-impressed he may be. The two getting married in “Blinkers” achieve no significance in themselves but are simply an excuse for a horse-drawn wedding procession to be described: the day is hot, the mountainside is steep, and a carriage-horse dies of a heart attack—one of the most vivid scenes in the book, for, as said, Shepard is clearly best at horses. In “Night Shot,” the type-cast cowboys are ignorable, but the uneasy horses they’re in charge of on a movie set are vivid, charactered, and real, and the same is true—both of horses and cowboys—in “Thirty Head of Killers.” The closest to a fictional balance between man and beast is in the title story, about an old man trying to prove a horse’s lineage by disinterring one of its parents for DNA testing.

Weak stories, artificial people, real horses.

Pub Date: March 1, 2003

ISBN: 1-58234-340-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2002

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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