WHERE THREE ROADS MEET

Better titled Where Three Roads Diverge—but do little more than divert.

Like the NBA-winning Chimera (1972), three linked novellas about sex, heroism and writing.

Having reworked his first novel, The Floating Opera (1956), in several books, Barth returns to his second, The End of the Road (1958), to play variations on the characters in its academic and tragicomic love triangle. “Tell Me” kills off that novel’s sophisticated teacher and panderer, rather than his girlfriend, when he learns she’s pregnant with his friend’s child. “I’ve Been Told: A Story’s Story” extends the life of the novel’s cuckolder, a naif and a would-be hero renamed Phil Blank, into bored middle age and eventual road-side paralysis outside of State College, Pa. “As I Was Saying” is narrated by three elderly sisters who worked their way through college as prostitutes, survived naïve and sophisticated men and inspired books, both a trilogy referred to in their story and Barth’s triptych. Although he mocks biographical criticism, these novellas nevertheless seem an attempt by the wizened and wiser male artist to reverse the conventional fates of fallen women, both his own and others, such as Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. The spirit is sweet, but Barth continues to test readers with his familiar impediments: extreme narrative self-consciousness, maze-like structures, scarce realistic detail and lots of “inside jokes and allusions.” Although the book is not “pedantical crapola,” as one of its character’s says, it will appeal mostly to Barthophiles who want still more after 16 volumes.

Better titled Where Three Roads Diverge—but do little more than divert.

Pub Date: Nov. 21, 2005

ISBN: 0-618-61016-2

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2005

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SIGHTSEEING

STORIES

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

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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