Uneven in execution, but permeated with a mature understanding that our lives are an accumulation of moments—and we live...



In her third story volume, McCorkle (Final Vinyl Days, 1998, etc.) again demonstrates that there’s room to grow in New Southern fiction as she explores various stages of human existence with emphasis on our kinship with animals.

It’s the narrative voice that distinguishes this North Carolina–born author from her less accomplished regional peers. McCorkle’s prose is contemporary without annoying K-Mart modernism, cognizant of her characters’ quirks without making them gothic freaks. Only the ubiquitous animal metaphors are occasionally strained, though they work brilliantly in the best pieces. “Billy Goats” ponders human vulnerability and male cruelty as the adult narrator recalls biking at dusk with other friends “too old for kick the can and too young to make out,” vowing never to be like the disappointed, depressed adults in their small hometown. (Scattered references pinpoint McCorkle’s habitual setting of Fulton, North Carolina.) “Hominids” is a scathing monologue by a 40ish wife sick to death of the dirty jokes and obsession with breasts of the men gathered for her husband’s annual golf weekend—readers can easily imagine the guys beating their chests and posturing for fellow gorillas. Not that the female characters are perfect: “If I were a dog I would have been put down by now,” boasts the angry, self-isolated narrator of “Dogs,” and the dead mother in “Toads” is revealed to have stifled two husbands with her insistence on being a depressed victim. Some of the best stories in the collection, which follows the arc of a lifespan, concern the elderly. Strongest of all is “Turtles,” a searing portrait of life in a nursing home and the slow, agonizing loss of mental and physical faculties. Though McCorkle deals uncompromisingly with often grim material, there’s still plenty of tough-minded humor and an elegiac tenderness for happiness past, struggles long ago won or lost, our perennial yearning for love.

Uneven in execution, but permeated with a mature understanding that our lives are an accumulation of moments—and we live most fully when we slow down to savor or recollect them.

Pub Date: Oct. 12, 2001

ISBN: 1-56512-256-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2001

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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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


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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