THE ASSIGNATION

Short, sharp shots (many of them aimed at sensuality and love) from the master of moody foreboding. Most of the 44 stories collected here are very short—no more than two or three pages—and treat an intimation of greed, lust or death arising from a minor (or, since Oates sometimes scorns plot, minimized) event. In "The Boy," a teacher intends to seduce a student who has been mooning over her, but instead avenges herself lustily for an unsatisfying life. In "Photographer's Model," an uncle's predilection for photographing his niece as a child has the result of making her perverse—in fact, a whore. When 15-year-old Junie's Momma in "Mule" takes a new lover who—like the lovers before him—soon begins to bang at windows and slap Momma around (evidently out of crazed desire for her "creepy" breasts), this time Junie herself dons high heels and leaves her mother to threatened suicide; like Momma's lover in a story he tells, she'll dive into the stream of life and take a good look at the corpse of a mule rotting there. In fact, fever, decay, nausea, protuberance, and intimations of mortality lead the way to dusty irony in many of these sketches, only some of which strike any target. As in the title story, "The Assignation" ("She rubs her body with hand lotion, breasts, buttocks and thighs, belly, legs. She's hypnotized by the feel of so much fleshy flesh"), the target is usually a solipsistic and a shadowy self, dreaming of an outside world. Vintage Oates—always interesting, though not always pleasant.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1988

ISBN: 0880014407

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1988

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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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Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

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THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

STORIES

A gathering of short stories by an ascended master of the form.

Best known for mega-bestselling horror yarns, King (Finders Keepers, 2015, etc.) has been writing short stories for a very long time, moving among genres and honing his craft. This gathering of 20 stories, about half previously published and half new, speaks to King’s considerable abilities as a writer of genre fiction who manages to expand and improve the genre as he works; certainly no one has invested ordinary reality and ordinary objects with as much creepiness as King, mostly things that move (cars, kid’s scooters, Ferris wheels). Some stories would not have been out of place in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and ’50s, with allowances for modern references (“Somewhere far off, a helicopter beats at the sky over the Gulf. The DEA looking for drug runners, the Judge supposes”). Pulpy though some stories are, the published pieces have noble pedigrees, having appeared in places such as Granta and The New Yorker. Many inhabit the same literary universe as Raymond Carver, whom King even name-checks in an extraordinarily clever tale of the multiple realities hidden in a simple Kindle device: “What else is there by Raymond Carver in the worlds of Ur? Is there one—or a dozen, or a thousand—where he quit smoking, lived to be 70, and wrote another half a dozen books?” Like Carver, King often populates his stories with blue-collar people who drink too much, worry about money, and mistrust everything and everyone: “Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.” Best of all, lifting the curtain, King prefaces the stories with notes about how they came about (“This one had to be told, because I knew exactly what kind of language I wanted to use”). Those notes alone make this a must for aspiring writers.

Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1167-9

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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