The author’s trademark gifts—vivid, economical characterizations, distinctive voices, fierce intelligence—are evident on...

GOING AWAY SHOES

STORIES

Another fine collection from short-fiction master McCorkle (Creatures of Habit, 2001, etc.), in a very dark mood indeed.

The title story sets the tone, limning the constricted life of a woman who stays home with her dying mother while her selfish married sisters patronize her as they always have. Debby was the unusual one who “dated people of different colors” and wore white shoes after Labor Day; now she’s trapped by her own niceness and can only dream, “Pack a bag. Pull the plug. Take your turn.” Death is a frequent visitor here. The sexy, can’t-pin-him-down boyfriend in “Driving to the Moon” lost his parents in a plane crash at 17 and flits in and out of the narrator’s life after high school, phoning whenever there’s an air disaster. The living cling to the dead in “Another Dimension,” the saddest piece. After their mother dies, 11-year-old Jimmy and eight-year-old Ann sabotage their father’s happiness with a kind waitress; Jimmy can’t tolerate her low-class ways, and Ann goes along, even though she’s drawn to the woman’s warmth. In the framing narrative, we see the adult siblings unable to sustain loving relationships, while the spurned waitress is a contented grandmother. Only the ultrasarcastic “PS,” a woman’s post-divorce letter to the marriage counselor who didn’t help, provides a welcome dose of McCorkle’s tart humor, and it’s extra tart here. (“I suspect being bored and having your mind wander during marriage counseling is not a good sign.”) “Magic Words” is downright scary, as a woman heading toward a first-time adulterous tryst is stymied by a girl fleeing her gang’s spookily angry “leader,” who is terrorizing their retired math teacher. The lone tender note is struck in “Intervention,” about a woman comforting her alcoholic husband because he forgave her an affair and her own drunkenness.

The author’s trademark gifts—vivid, economical characterizations, distinctive voices, fierce intelligence—are evident on every page. Now let’s hope she cheers up a little next time.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-56512-632-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 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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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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