These stories manage the impressive feat of blending gritty realism with more surreal strands, making for a gripping read.

HONEY IN THE CARCASE

In this tense collection of short stories, Novakovich (Heritage of Smoke, 2017, etc.) explores the nature of conflict—from people ensnared in civil wars to the uneasy bonds between humans and animals.

Surprises abound in Novakovich’s latest collection, which covers the lives of people in Eastern Europe grappling with authoritarianism, internal conflicts, and the pressures within their own communities. These are familiar themes, but Novakovich keeps things unpredictable from the outset: The title story, about a beekeeper living in the midst of a war zone, ends on a frenzied, surreal note that hints at the author's ability to both channel realism and, when the occasion demands, undermine it entirely. “Fritz: A Fable” is set at a time of war between Serbia and Croatia and centers around a couple, each with ties to one side. They own a dog and cat who are in constant conflict, which both echoes and eventually transcends the larger chaos around them. Much like the title story, “Wool” also involves animals and ends unexpectedly: In this case, a girl’s father procures a lamb for her, and she bonds with it—but soon, the father’s cynicism and abuse take things in a bleak direction. Even with that in mind, the ending comes off as genuinely shocking. This collection isn’t simply an immersion in human horrors, though: “Charity Deductions,” about a well-meaning, wealthy American whose good intentions backfire memorably, takes on a more overtly satirical tone. Novakovich expertly probes the minds of the virtuous, the menacing, and the self-deluded in equal measure; the ending of “A Variation on a Theme of Boccaccio,” in which the narrator realizes he’s hardly the hero of his own story, is particularly harrowing.

These stories manage the impressive feat of blending gritty realism with more surreal strands, making for a gripping read.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-945814-47-1

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Dzanc

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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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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