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

SHORT PEOPLE

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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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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