Readers might find this less compelling as fiction than as a glimpse into what Hollywood was “really” like.

JOHN O’HARA’S HOLLYWOOD

This uneven collection focuses on issues of status and morality (or lack thereof) during the heyday of the studio star system.

One of the most popular and prolific writers of his era, O’Hara wrote novels that were adapted into movies (Pal Joey, 1957; Butterfield 8, 1960, etc.) and cashed some paychecks as a screenwriter, but he never devoted a novel to Hollywood. Yet his experiences there provided plenty of inspiration for his fiction, as this posthumous collection of 22 stories attests. Spanning 36 years, the anthology proceeds chronologically, starting with early 1930s pieces for the New Yorker that are barely stories at all, mainly vignettes or conversations of a couple pages or slightly more. In the 1960s, O’Hara progressed to longer pieces that are more engaging and compelling. Though editor Bruccoli in his introduction describes these—“Natica Jackson” and “James Francis and the Star” among them—as “primarily character stories,” O’Hara’s characters typically lack the depth and complexity of individuals and are more like stereotypes. He’s most concerned with actresses who are past their prime (or, occasionally on the verge), who invariably owe their success to accidents of looks and luck rather than to anything approaching talent. In 1969’s “The Sun Room,” a proudly notorious former star speaks for many in this collection when she says she’d like to teach an acting course where one week she’d “lecture on bust development” and the next “demonstrate the technique of the casting couch.” Writers in these stories are intellectually superior to actors, though not always morally so. Hollywood husbands are predominantly gay, even possibly the one in “In a Grove” who marries a hooker and offers her to an acquaintance for $100. Dialogue is O’Hara’s strength, though some of it dates these stories.

Readers might find this less compelling as fiction than as a glimpse into what Hollywood was “really” like.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2007

ISBN: 0-7867-1872-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2006

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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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