Oates being Oates. Let the reader beware.

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SOURLAND

More of (mostly) the same in Oates’s latest collection of 16 in-your-face short stories.

Faithful readers will note the familiar mixture of vividly conceived psychodramas redeemed by raw intensity and immediacy, and clichéd depictions of vulnerable and victimized souls dominated by overdrawn avatars of ego and appetite. The latter include a clenched account of a suburban mom’s joyless dalliance with an unfeeling, abusive lover (“Babysitter”); a recent widow’s predictable Kafkaesque entrapment in the coils of the legal system (“Probate”); and the seemingly endless tale of an uprooted family destined to make ruinously wrong decisions, notably its “sensitive” daughter’s attraction to the romantic sociopathy of her sullen male cousin (“Honor Code”). When not idling along at her worst, Oates shows flashes of the gritty hyperbolic lucidity that can make her stories rattle around in your head for days after you’ve read them. She manages credible and moving empathy in relating the experiences of another recent widow hopelessly drawn to a creepy admirer (“Pumpkin-Head”); a former gang member hoping against hope to become a responsible adult (“Bounty Hunter”); a boy desperate to make any sacrifice that might enable his ailing hospital-bound father to recover (“The Barter”); and an alienated teenager (“Bitch”) seduced almost magically back into caring for her moribund father. Even the better of these stories are blemished by contrivance and shrillness, as is even the volume’s rightful centerpiece, its title story, in which a woman still yearning for her recently deceased husband accepts an invitation to visit the latter’s sinister old acquaintance—a recluse who refers cryptically to himself as a “pilgrim in perpetual quest.” In fact he is, as explicit symbolism makes clear, her immediate future and destiny. Despite its forced awkwardness, this is one of the author’s strongest and most haunting stories in years.

Oates being Oates. Let the reader beware.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-06-199652-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2010

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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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  • New York Times Bestseller

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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