A thoroughly original take on the experience of being a kid, and wishing the whole baffling business of growing and changing...


Childhood and its discontents, in a harrowing debut collection of ten subtly interrelated stories.

New York City playwright Furst begins with a nicely understated contrast between two six-year-old playmates: budding paleontologist Billy and imaginative, fantasy-driven Jason (“The Age of Exploration”)—each of whom secretly fears and envies the other’s distinctive qualities. Interludes between succeeding pieces offer terse vignettes of various children’s experiences of parental neglect or abuse: they’re in effect commentaries on the longer stories, whose relationship to them isn’t clarified until the penultimate tale “Failure to Thrive,” in which a maternity ward nurse reveals the extent and chilling nature of the compassion she feels for infants who are doomed to lives of unfulfillment and sorrow. Elsewhere, Furst creates scathing character portrayals of a teenaged girl on the threshold of adult sexuality (“She Rented Manhattan”); an absentee dad whose infrequent romps with his several children reveal both his charm and his heartlessness (“Red Lobster”); a hilariously foulmouthed Boy Scout hell-bent on becoming as “cool” as his unpredictable older buddy (“Merit Badge”); and an amorous boy helplessly attracted to a girl who’s burdened and empowered by her intense femininity (“Mercy Fuck”). The two best stories portray a “family in crisis” brought on by its well-meaning father’s “progressive” imperatives (no TV, no toys) and inability to empathize with his harried wife’s failure to control either their kids or her own maternal and sexual demons (“The Good Parents”); and a fledgling born-again Christian (nine-year-old Shawn of “This Little Light”) for whom baptism and confirmation turn into a fervent “literal interpreter, for whom actions, thoughts, and beliefs have palpable, cut-and-dried consequences,” and who can forget neither his own nor his parents’ human failings.

A thoroughly original take on the experience of being a kid, and wishing the whole baffling business of growing and changing would just go away.

Pub Date: June 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-41431-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 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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