Oates being Oates. Let the reader beware.


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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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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