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

WHERE THREE ROADS MEET

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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 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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