Still, Orringer stakes out some ground for herself with these compact little pieces about growing up in tough circumstances.

HOW TO BREATHE UNDERWATER

STORIES

Mordant snapshots of lives under stress.

As a career calling card, one could definitely do worse than this debut collection of nine stories. In the opening piece, “Pilgrims,” a simple Thanksgiving Day visit by a family to the house of some friends takes a macabre turn when the game being played by the children in the backyard goes too far. This dark-tinged flavor is echoed in “Stations of the Cross,” the volume’s climactic story, which has deeper things on its mind—the travails of a Jewish girl trying to figure out where she stands in an almost entirely Catholic small Louisiana town—before going off the rails with a children’s reenactment of the Crucifixion that starts to mirror a lynching. If Orringer has a problem, it’s one endemic to the modern short story: that these are for the most part still lives; they don’t go anywhere. “The Isabel Fish” is an extremely competent and well-wrought tale about a teenaged girl who recently almost died in a car wreck that killed her older brother’s girlfriend—something he now hates her for, a strange variant of survivor guilt. But as convincingly as Orringer is able to travel the strange by-ways of the adolescent mindset, there’s no movement in the story, just the usual onionskin peeling away of memory until the details surrounding the primal crash are revealed. One piece that breaks the mold is “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” in which a young girl (another one) is made an accomplice by a friend who’s planning to elope with a guy who doesn’t exactly seem like husband material. While it’s not the best entry here, it at least progresses from A to B and gives you a reason to persevere to the final lines; it’s unlike most of these stories, which just peter out, albeit in a quiet and artful manner.

Still, Orringer stakes out some ground for herself with these compact little pieces about growing up in tough circumstances.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2003

ISBN: 1-4000-4111-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2003

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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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