A few of these gritty tales about military men have appeared in literary magazines, but they deserve a wider audience. Miller's characters have more in common than simply being members of the armed forces; they all have trouble making decisions. For people whose profession is war, they are surprisingly averse to conflict and often try to back away from it. In ``The Rifle,'' a lieutenant delivering an officer's remains to his family becomes embroiled in a disagreement between the dead man's wife and parents over who will keep the flag to be draped over the coffin, even though all he wants to do is leave town. Women are particularly suspect and mysterious to these protagonists. ``Bethune, South Carolina'' shows a soldier dating a Duke freshman who, though Catholic, has a pretty advanced vocabulary for 1965 (``I didn't find out what ejaculate meant until the next day, when I borrowed the first sergeant's dictionary and looked it up''). When she becomes pregnant and asks for $500, he arranges a cheaper abortion through a tough comrade. A mother staying with her son at a rented vacation cabin in ``Blackstone'' (Virginia) gets involved with a hard-drinking man named Billy Murdoch—who turns out to be AWOL—and begins neglecting her boy for long stretches. In the title story, a future enlistee watches from afar while his blackguard cousin seduces a prim piano teacher. Some stories fall short. ``Vancouver,'' which intersperses the saga of a man returning home from Vietnam with wartime scenes written in the style of a film script, rambles on too long, and a few too many pieces end on a note of quiet puzzlement that eventually becomes monotonous. But in the aggregate, this is an honest collection that successfully develops such recurring themes as guns and their misuse. An impressively serious and professional debut from a man who served in Vietnam himself and obviously knows whereof he writes.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 1995

ISBN: 0-9642949-3-1

Page Count: 178

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1994



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




A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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