A mixed bag: not as satisfying as Kalfus’ recent novels, though technically accomplished and often with great insight into...


A gathering of new stories by Kalfus (Equilateral, 2013, etc.), drawing on his long-established interests in history, science, and at least a few of the seven mortal sins. 

A self-satisfied French financier “in the service of the public” luxuriates in the oversized bathroom of an oversized deluxe hotel in New York, reflecting on a pattern of sexual behavior that has landed him in the newspapers and in court—and on the legal and political radar of his home country as well, since “Sarkozy is another Nixon” keen to put evidence about his enemies, however gathered, to bad use. If the reader connects with a certain legal case much in the news of late involving a French financial wizard and an African hotel housekeeper, then it’s certainly no accident; the value Kalfus adds, so to speak, often involves illuminating certain prurient details (“With her eyes closed and her skirt pulled up, she was intently fingering herself”) while examining the psychology of a man who blends an unhealthy dose of paranoia with a host of very real enemies. Whether those enemies are deserved or not is for the reader to judge, but Kalfus’ titular novella, detached and sometimes stilted, won’t do much to engage his or her moral compass, well-written though it is. The shorter stories tend to be less fraught than all that; one is a seemingly tossed-off vignette about a spell in the hygienist’s chair (“Given the long, bloody history of my gingivitis, I go in for a periodontal cleaning every three months”), another an obligatory homage to Borges, still others less obvious nods to Borges, some quite effective, as when Kalfus imagines the possibilities of resurrecting a language “that is not spoken by more than one other living person.” In one of the best pieces, human law meets quantum physics; in one of the least successful, a would-be writer laments how hard it is to be a would-be writer.

A mixed bag: not as satisfying as Kalfus’ recent novels, though technically accomplished and often with great insight into the curious ways of people.

Pub Date: May 12, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62040-085-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


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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