THIRST

STORIES

It’s not easy to identify author Kalfus in this debut volume, since its mode, manner, and voice change as with the colors of the chameleon. Perhaps the 14 pieces vary so from having been written over a long a period; many, in any case, are notably less original or adept than others. The ghosts of O. Henry and his legions haunt simple, surprise-ending stories like “Bouquet” (an Irish au pair aghast at the licentiousness of Paris) and “Suit” (a young man being tailored for his appearance in court); others follow the same path but stroll also toward the occult, as in the Jekyll and Hyde “Night and Day You Are the One” and “The Weather in New York” (an apartment-bound man realizing that a snowstorm will never end). Kalfus’s least resonant efforts are his most “realistic,” as in the suburban tale of boyhood cruelty to animals (“Cats in Space”) or the Hemingway-esque effort about coming home again (“Among the Bulgarians”), which lies limp on the page in spite of its echoes of classics like “Soldier’s Home.” The fellow who lusts after his wife’s friend (“Rope Bridge”) has far too little to show or tell for himself, and a Thailand-set tale of human tragedy (“No Grace on the Road”) becomes clumsy and tendentious. Kalfus’s stronger talent lies in less conventional directions the sparkling little essay-pieces of “The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz,” for example, or the simultaneously historic, surreal, and lovely “The Republic of St. Mark, 1849”). Even then, Kalfus needs to guard against a debilitating coyness of tone, as in his “Invisible Malls” (Marco Polo explains malls to Kublai Khan), but his inventiveness and lyricism here or in “A Line Is a Series of Points” (entire villages wander across the countryside) are his best, and often captivating. A middling mix, with glimmers of real strengths in the offing.

Pub Date: June 19, 1998

ISBN: 1-57131-018-5

Page Count: 210

Publisher: Milkweed

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1998

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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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