Philosophically savvy, entertaining, and whimsical in large part, with only a semi-rewarding latter half.

CHANCEY ON TOP

Aussie corporate headhunter quips a sonnet of his own demise, in a first novel by the author of, among others, Secrets of a Corporate Headhunter (1980).

Aptly named Chancey Haste, novice poet and founder of Haste & Co., employs reckless, power-driven “rainmakers” at his office in Sydney, and they in turn position underqualified clients in big business atmospheres. Chancey’s marriage to Jill, and the love of their two children, take the backburner to Elen Haverford, the classically intelligent daughter of a wealthy Brit magazine owner who entertains herself with Wildean witticisms and Hastean sexual appetites. Together, the two tour Godzone (God’s Own Country: New Zealand), quibbling over Shakespeare and enjoying their privileged lives. Meanwhile, though, Chancey’s accounts are dwindling and his Renfield-like sidekick Crawley is getting nervous. Haste & Co. has plans to open offices in New York and London, but it seems that Fuller Fyfe and “Brittle Dick,” Chancey’s top two agents, want only to spend time bickering over personal ethics (which they both lack: while interviewing a quadriplegic applicant, Fuller feels a sexual history is in order). Though garnished with hilarious, farcical episodes, the first section sobers itself nicely with Chancey’s guilt: perverse dreams of sex and violence and an unpaid printer threaten to reveal his adulterous ways. The second section, however, opts for a realistic and less inspired denouement. Chancey and Jill are in New York, Fuller has landed the London office, and Brittle holds down the fort Down Under. Five years after their breakup, Elan returns to Chancey, this time pregnant and accompanied by an elderly, closet-bisexual husband. The affair reignites but doesn’t last. Chancey discovers that Elan aborted the baby he never knew about. Jill kicks him out of their house. His poems get unimaginably worse. Fuller and Brittle conspire to form their own agency and pilfer much of Haste & Co.’s clientele. There’ll be a romanticized suicide, another street prophet insinuating Chancey is the devil himself, plus a brutal ass-kicking, before Chancey is no longer on top.

Philosophically savvy, entertaining, and whimsical in large part, with only a semi-rewarding latter half.

Pub Date: July 1, 2003

ISBN: 1-56649-264-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2003

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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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