Undistinguished work, for the most part. But “Retribution” and “Liars” offer hopeful glimpses of the heights Fulton may be...



A mixed-bag debut collection of ten stories and a novella, mostly concerned with midlife and identity crises, divorce, alcoholism, parental neglect, and adolescent forbearance and rebellion in fragmented Middle American households.

Many of these pieces are frustratingly slight, including “Rose” (an elderly widow’s memories of her timorous husband), “Iceland” (an American woman’s impulsive and pointless sexual adventure in Italy), and “First Sex” (an Eagle Scout math prodigy loses both his innocence and his convictions about his own decency and worth). Ex-spouses in flight from their responsibilities are contrasted with the infinitely more sentient children whom they keep disappointing (“The Troubled Dog,” “Stealing”); others exhibit deceit or incompetence that variously afflict innocent people (a young girl temporarily stricken with “white blindness” in “Visions”; a teenager who finds escape from his mother’s frailties in the “new, bad habits” that come all too easily to him in “Outlaws”). Three stories rise above the general level of mediocrity. “Braces” marshalls an abundance of skillfully selected detail in portraying a subdued 15-year-old “caught in the middle” of his father’s whiny futility and his mother’s recklessness. The novella “Retribution” slowly builds up a frighteningly convincing characterization of teenaged Rachel, whose gentle mother is slowly dying of cancer. Fulton deftly dramatizes the manner in which the presence of impending death—and the need to cheat it—breed in the confused girl an irrational “meanness” that strikes out violently, then, as suddenly and as cryptically, simply disappears. Best of all is “Liars,” about a teenager’s skiing trip with his divorced father and the latter’s smug girlfriend. It’s a moving story filled with surprising developments, in which the metaphor of downhill skiing beautifully suggests the core of carelessness and daring that the boy perceives in his father, cannot comprehend, yet blindly, inexplicably emulates.

Undistinguished work, for the most part. But “Retribution” and “Liars” offer hopeful glimpses of the heights Fulton may be capable of scaling.

Pub Date: July 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-312-27680-X

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2001

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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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


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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