A riveting fictional meditation on the persistent drive to find acceptance and connection.

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A collection of linked short stories about a cut-rate carnival show traveling through the American South during the early 20th century.

In 1910, patent medicine salesman Earl Beasley launches a “Traveling Amusements” show, and his first “human attractions” are people whom he’d been unable to cure with his concoctions. Earl’s sons, Stan, Tom, and Earl Jr., take over in 1912, and they continue the family business with ruthless hucksterism, amassing a collection of people whom they market under such names as “Flipper Boy,” “Hammer Toe,” and “Lizard Man.” Each has a unique, poignant story, rooted in social segregation and a desire for autonomy and connection. Julian Henry, the aforementioned “Lizard” person, is embittered by both his father’s revulsion and his mother’s adulation. Tiny Laveaux, billed as the “World’s Smallest Woman,” escapes the tawdry reality of her daily exposure to the gawking public via transcendent sex with the armless “Hammer Toe.” Beulah Divine, the “World’s Largest Woman,” who’s perpetually forced to remain heavy by the profit-hungry Beasleys, endures a barrage of mocking taunts by cherishing a private secret—her real name. Cheever, an African American roustabout, ran away from his difficult life as a sharecropper only to find that the carnival is just another type of bondage. Seligman’s (A Pocket Book of Prompts, 2015, etc.) episodic narrative hangs on themes of loneliness, suffering, and the ascendance of human kindness. Although the setting might give rise to fears of stereotyping or sensationalism, each character emerges as a complex person who’s part of an unconventional but still familiar community. Seligman’s prose is vivid and captivating, as when she describes Julian’s first encounter with Tiny: “her eyes darting every which way until they landed on him like great splats of rain.” Her portrayal of a society teetering between the past and the future is subtle, and although many of the characters’ stories are sad, there are recurring moments of gentleness.

A riveting fictional meditation on the persistent drive to find acceptance and connection.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-87233-296-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Bauhan Publishing

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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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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