The author has a fine eye, and his prose can see autumn leaves “fall like loose change from the trees.” It needs to do that...


The 12 connected stories in this debut describe schemes and dreams among the inhabitants of a poor coastal town on Long Island, New York.

In the opening story, Will works in a bowling alley collecting “dead wood,” pins that escape the mechanical sweeper. His roommate, Dorian, has a scam involving mattresses. Will’s girlfriend, Carla, tells him about rehab, to which she will return. Dorian calls asking for bail money. A naked young man fights police at a gas station. This is life in Mastic Beach, a town of bungalows and dead-end jobs a few miles from the wealthy Hamptons. Characters recur in different stories, and some of the action in several seems to occupy the same couple of days. Mowdy grew up there, and he captures these frayed, mostly pre-30 lives with well-chosen details in subdued prose touched by empathy and irony. A jingle writer learns that a hooker mentally hums one of his ditties to keep her mind off certain aspects of work. A fellow who exploits his good looks with both sexes gets comeuppance from an older woman: “You are a harmless and gutless little fraud.” In a stylistically ambitious story, a boy seems drawn in to his father’s Vietnam War PTSD and thinks the man’s “breath sounds like a faraway scream.” Jay-Jay covets a yellow Caprice Classic and dreams of escape. He’ll get the car in another story that revisits the mattress scam, but he goes nowhere. The naked guy at the gas station turns out to be tripping on acid. He’s mentioned in five stories, an atypical case of extreme behavior in a community where struggle and setbacks are constants but despair is surprisingly rare.

The author has a fine eye, and his prose can see autumn leaves “fall like loose change from the trees.” It needs to do that more often.

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-948226-11-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Catapult

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

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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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Superb stylist L’Amour returns (End of the Drive, 1997, etc.), albeit posthumously, with ten stories never seen before in book form—and narrated in his usual hard-edged, close-cropped sentences, jutting up from under fierce blue skies. This is the first of four collections of L’Amour material expected from Bantam, edited by his daughter Angelique, featuring an eclectic mix of early historicals and adventure stories set in China, on the high seas, and in the boxing ring, all drawing from the author’s exploits as a carnival barker and from his mysterious and sundry travels. During this period, L’Amour was trying to break away from being a writer only of westerns. Also included is something of an update on Angelique’s progress with her father’s biography: i.e., a stunningly varied list of her father’s acquaintances from around the world whom she’d like to contact for her research. Meanwhile, in the title story here, a missionary’s daughter who crashes in northern Asia during the early years of the Sino-Japanese War is taken captive by a nomadic leader and kept as his wife for 15 years, until his death. When a plane lands, she must choose between taking her teenaged son back to civilization or leaving him alone with the nomads. In “By the Waters of San Tadeo,” set on the southern coast of Chile, Julie Marrat, whose father has just perished, is trapped in San Esteban, a gold field surrounded by impassable mountains, with only one inlet available for anyone’s escape. “Meeting at Falmouth,” a historical, takes place in January 1794 during a dreadful Atlantic storm: “Volleys of rain rattled along the cobblestones like a scattering of broken teeth.” In this a notorious American, unnamed until the last paragraph, helps Talleyrand flee to America. A master storyteller only whets the appetite for his next three volumes.

Pub Date: May 11, 1999

ISBN: 0-553-10963-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1999

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