A promising first collection, showcasing a new writer’s significant powers of invention—though he seems merely to be tuning...



The sky is falling, the world is ending, and Rumpelstiltskin is going to pieces in this intriguing but unfulfilling debut collection.

Arkansas-based Brockmeier won a 2000 O. Henry Award for the opening story, “These Hands,” about a 34-year-old male babysitter who grows ever more obsessed with the 18-month-old girl in his charge. The other ten tales have similarly quirky approaches, focusing on unusual living conditions or supernatural states of being. In “The Ceiling,” for example, a man has to cope with his wife’s new affair and the fact that the sky is slowly descending toward the earth. The narrator of “The Passenger” was born and raised, and now lives, in a never-landing airplane. “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin” portrays half of the well-known villain—literally one half of his body—living out a quiet life in contemporary America, eating lunch in parks and working at a department store. Brockmeier’s habitual strategy is to concoct a weird condition and then explore it in detail, but only in a few instances do we get the rise and fall of action—as in “Apples,” about a man who experiences his first kiss and sees his teacher killed by a flying bucket on the same school day; or the title story, about a middle-aged librarian who finds redemption in an eccentric old patron. Brockmeier’s scenarios are entertaining, even if reading them occasionally feels like eating at a themed restaurant—nice decorations, but predictable once you get the idea. He has a tendency to overdescribe (“A smile evanesced across her face,” “the sky grew bright with afternoon,” etc.), but in moments of high effect he puts on quite a brilliant show. The conversation between half of Rumpelstiltskin and the women at a local auxiliary club is an outstanding piece of comedy.

A promising first collection, showcasing a new writer’s significant powers of invention—though he seems merely to be tuning his instrument for future work.

Pub Date: March 26, 2002

ISBN: 0-375-42134-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2002

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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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