Dispirited young people with small dreams and short sight.

THE HISTORY OF VEGAS

STORIES

Nightmarish memories from high school make up Angel’s weightless and grim first collection.

The characters in these ten stories here aren’t necessarily the kinds you’d want to spend a lot of time with. Take the teenagers, for instance, high on pot in “Donny,” with nothing better to do than torture the narrator’s family dog. They’re on their way to college, maybe, but first they have to initiate the younger sibling of the high school senior of the first story, “Portions,” who returns from getting high by the river with her friends to show her overweight younger sister the health benefits of vomiting. “The History of Vegas” is a depressing tale of hopeless youth given little glimpse of more uplifting lives than those to be spent in battering and prostitution. A 17-year-old boy making a trek to Vegas with his mother and bruised Aunt Dolores to get her a divorce meets a pubescent hooker he befriends and takes back to his motel room. Even their idyllic moment together is tainted and cheapened by the arrival of Dolores’s brutal ex-husband, Uncle Charlie. Elements deliberately undeveloped, like the presence in Charlie’s Crown Vic of his silent co-worker, who makes no addition to the denouement except as a menace, lend the stories unfinished if surprising endings. The young protagonists take comfort where they can, with no help from parents, as in “Supplement,” set during harvest-time on a vegetable farm. The young narrator, Jaycee, becomes entangled in the romance of a neighbor couple while having to quiet the fears of her younger brother, who is nervous about their parents’ feuding. “The Skin from the Muscle” finds a young man home alone (his mother having abandoned him and his father months before) when two women deer-hunters come knocking to use the phone. The startling turn of some of these pieces is mitigated by the overriding bleakness of tone and setting.

Dispirited young people with small dreams and short sight.

Pub Date: July 22, 2005

ISBN: 0-8118-4625-3

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2005

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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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