Intellectually dazzling, emotionally chilly, and bound to provoke.



Nine intriguing debut pieces explore the point where art and life intersect—or collide—in the lives of artists, performers and movie characters.

While “Dream of a Clean Slate” examines Jackson Pollock’s last affair, it mainly contemplates how the painter’s unhappiness and frustration fed his art even as they destroyed him. The story asks, who is more authentic, the artist as person or the person as artist? “Elephant Feelings” juxtaposes a show elephant on Coney Island with a South African woman who was a freak-show attraction in France. According to Haskell, both loved and were discarded by the men who controlled their lives. Less fortunate than Pollock, they had no outlet for communicating their feelings and died broken-hearted. In “The Judgement of Psycho,” the Hitchcock movie is re-envisioned along with the role of Paris in the Trojan War. Haskell’s interest is the power of unattainable desire. “Crimes at Midnight” plays several riffs on Orson Welles films (including a walk-on by Janet Leigh) and on Welles himself as actor/character/creative force. These stories tend to be written in short segments, often seemingly unrelated. “The Faces of Joan of Arc,” for example, jumps from a discussion of Mercedes McCambridge as the devil in The Exorcist to a silent-screen version of Joan of Arc, to Hedy Lamarr as Delilah, to Godard’s wife (Anna Karenina) in a film persona as a prostitute. For Haskell, actors and their parts are seemingly interchangeable. “Capucine”—about the actress’s suicide–is one of the more unified stories, as is “Glenn Gould in Six Parts,” which also stands out for its few almost happy moments. “Good World” takes its cue from Aristotle’s pronouncement about habit as the foundation of virtue as it imagines the short life of the first Soviet dog in space and Richard III’s courtship of Anne. “The Narrow Road” shows the poets Basho and John Keats forced to choose between art and life.

Intellectually dazzling, emotionally chilly, and bound to provoke.

Pub Date: April 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-374-17399-0

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2003

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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