Strongest and freshest when it explores the terra infirma of old age.

THE DEVELOPMENT

NINE STORIES

National Book Award winner Barth’s latest (Where Three Roads Meet, 2005, etc.), a slender collection of linked stories set on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Heron Bay Estates is an oddity for the region: a gated community of the Florida type, complete with resident stickers, a clubhouse and a homeowner’s association. Many residents are retirees, some making the slow transition from mansions to either “villas” (horizontal duplexes) or “coach homes” (vertical duplexes), and from there the sad move to assisted living. The best work here is the most conventional. In “Peeping Tom,” the community is in some ways brought together, in some ways sundered, in others simply entertained by the possibility that a stranger may be peering in through windows at bodies and lives that seem to their owners increasingly invisible and unsought-after. Equally strong is “Toga Party,” the account of a lavish elder-bacchanal that ends with a loving couple deciding spontaneously, but with chilling persuasiveness, to commit suicide by asphyxiation in their garage. The book is weakest when the author does what he did more inventively and exuberantly years ago, as in several tales narrated by retired creative-writing professor George Newett that feature Barth’s hallmark postmodern indeterminacy and self-consciousness. There are broad hints that the book is fiction devised by Newett, or devised by Barth devising behind Newett. That’s the sort of fiction the author prefers, we sense, as Newett, comparing his own stories to the “more imaginative perpetrations” of a student, laments that they seem like “pallid rehashes” of Updike, Cheever and O’Hara, “the muted epiphanies and petty nuances of upper-middle-class life.” This anxiety drains some power from his low-key, clear-eyed, battered-but-unbowed portrait of the diminishments and minor pleasures of age. Barth’s prose still has its sinew and snap; he examines near-decrepitude with mordant, rueful wit. No need for narratorial hand-wringing over failure to push the fictional envelope.

Strongest and freshest when it explores the terra infirma of old age.

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-547-07248-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2008

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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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