Precise, shrewd tales by a prodigiously talented but still too-little-known writer. Nelson (Language in the Blood, 1991, etc.) offers an enthralling refresher course in the exploration of character. Each of the 13 tales here use a character’s dedication (or addiction) to a sport to plumb hesitations and hopes. In “A False Encounter,” a grieving son is driven to investigate why his seemingly happy father committed suicide. The quest eventually leads him back to a group of his father’s college friends, all of them accomplished amateur boxers. The key to his father’s behavior, it turns out, is hidden in a moment of triumph in his youth when, against all expectations, he was able to rise from the canvas after devastating blow. Such exhilarating, defining moments, Nelson suggests, both shape and haunt us. What happens when one discovers that these moments are singular and unsurpassable? The appropriately named “Death Valley— offers quite a different view of sports: a wealthy and accomplished, diffident young professional golfer visits her lover, a groundskeeper at a golf course in the California desert. Golf has helped to insulate her from the world, and her self-absorption and life of privilege are both called into question when she collides with the hard, sad lives of a group of migrant laborers camped close to the links.”Every Day a Promise” perfectly catches the unwillingness of a track champ to give up his dream of the Olympics. “The Invisible— offers a droll, somewhat mystical celebration of the way in which a star college quarterback wins back his soul from the coaches, boosters, and agents. And “The Squash Player” works out an artful variation on the theme of the aging athlete, as a man struggles to find his place in a world in which he’s no longer physically dominant. Moving, fresh, perceptive work, and further evidence of Nelson’s considerable skills.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1998

ISBN: 1-891369-05-9

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Lyons Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1998

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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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