Finely wrought tales, but the characters, no matter how varied, seem clichéd and their pasts contrived.



Twelve elegant but underpowered stories from Hemingway/PEN Award–winner Silber (In the City, 1987, etc.), charting the lives of those who, after misspent youth, settle down for the duration and ponder the changes.

The concept is an intriguing one: What happens to people who live and love dangerously? Do they ever change, or do they continue their wild ways? Silber's people have changed, mostly for the conventional better, but, like exiles, they often look back to that other territory that was once their life. “Lake Natsink,” which first appeared in The New Yorker, shows a woman named Patty, who works at a substance abuse clinic in Manhattan, recalling the years she associated with drug dealers as she prepares to leave the city with her lesbian lover and their adopted mixed-race child for a new life upstate. The reality of their life in the country is detailed in a linked story, “Ordinary”: Patty encounters prejudice but understands that she can't go back, can't even quite remember the city now. Other notable tales describe an artist who marries a much older Englishman in order to get him a green card, then, 20 years later, finds it difficult to leave him (“First Marriage”); a woman, now married and working with innercity children, who is reminded of her time with a rock band when she stays with an old friend in Italy whose teenage son is having problems (“Ragazzi”); the middleaged manager of a video store whose own irresponsible past comes to mind when her pretty clerk takes up with an obviously bad boy (“Comforts”); and, in the most harrowing piece here, a woman who looks back to the night her disturbed stepsister was raped and murdered (“Without Ellie”).

Finely wrought tales, but the characters, no matter how varied, seem clichéd and their pasts contrived.

Pub Date: May 1, 2000

ISBN: 1-889330-42-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Sarabande

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2000

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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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