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




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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Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

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A gathering of short stories by an ascended master of the form.

Best known for mega-bestselling horror yarns, King (Finders Keepers, 2015, etc.) has been writing short stories for a very long time, moving among genres and honing his craft. This gathering of 20 stories, about half previously published and half new, speaks to King’s considerable abilities as a writer of genre fiction who manages to expand and improve the genre as he works; certainly no one has invested ordinary reality and ordinary objects with as much creepiness as King, mostly things that move (cars, kid’s scooters, Ferris wheels). Some stories would not have been out of place in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and ’50s, with allowances for modern references (“Somewhere far off, a helicopter beats at the sky over the Gulf. The DEA looking for drug runners, the Judge supposes”). Pulpy though some stories are, the published pieces have noble pedigrees, having appeared in places such as Granta and The New Yorker. Many inhabit the same literary universe as Raymond Carver, whom King even name-checks in an extraordinarily clever tale of the multiple realities hidden in a simple Kindle device: “What else is there by Raymond Carver in the worlds of Ur? Is there one—or a dozen, or a thousand—where he quit smoking, lived to be 70, and wrote another half a dozen books?” Like Carver, King often populates his stories with blue-collar people who drink too much, worry about money, and mistrust everything and everyone: “Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.” Best of all, lifting the curtain, King prefaces the stories with notes about how they came about (“This one had to be told, because I knew exactly what kind of language I wanted to use”). Those notes alone make this a must for aspiring writers.

Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1167-9

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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