Oates being Oates. Let the reader beware.

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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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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