THE AFTERLIFE

AND OTHER STORIES

"The Big Guy is getting our range," says the 60ish protagonist of the title story. Death is catching up with many of the characters in Updike's (Brazil, 1994, etc.) latest short-story collection, which may explain the tilt toward familial reminiscence and corresponding loss of narrative bite. It is memory, memory of a three-way love involving a mother, her son, and their home, that fuels the longest offering, "A Sandstone Farmhouse"; despite moments of exquisite pathos, it is too detailed and static. (A tighter companion piece, "The Black Room," works better.) A much shorter, essaylike fiction celebrates "the smell of family, family without end" that emanates from "The Brown Chest." The family also figures in the more conventionally structured stories. Some old friends, the Maples, reappear in "Grandparenting," jostling amusingly for pride of place at the birth of their first grandchild, while in "Brother Grasshopper," about two brothers-in-law, it is the seemingly feckless one who proves the truer custodian of the family's identity. For the older characters, death is not always an adversary: Carter ("The Afterlife") and Fanshawe ("Playing with Dynamite") feel serenely indifferent to its approach. True terror does strike once, for a cancer victim and her hospital visitor ("The Journey to the Dead"). But Updike's playfulness surfaces in his story of a clairvoyant Scottish caddie ("Farrell's Caddie") and in his witty sketch of a dental hygienist ("Tristan and Iseult"). Nor have the bright lights of adultery altogether dimmed. Two separately married members disrupt their suburban recorder group when they become lovers ("The Man Who Became a Soprano"). Then there is the sparkling "Baby's First Step" in which Glenn, a 36-year-old lawyer, begins a second career as a philanderer by seducing his best friend's wife, and death could not be farther away. Not among the best of Updike's collections, but even the duller stories yield extraordinary pleasures of language and perception.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 1994

ISBN: 0-679-43583-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1994

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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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