NORMAL

STORIES

The most agreeable pieces in Nevai's second collection (Star Game, 1987) suggests that social workers rush in where angels fear to tread, which is a welcome view in fiction largely concerned with family dysfunction, alcoholism, divorce, and madness—in short, with families who desperately need help. These 12 stories, almost all previously published in literary magazines, often rely on a sly point of view. When the liberal parents in ``Monsieur Alle,'' from Manhattan's Upper West Side, are investigated by a Social Services worker, it's difficult to figure out who's hurting the most in this screwy family. Equally winning is ``Me, Gus,'' a first-person narrative of a short Italian fellow from Jersey who gets little respect from his extended family, but discovers his true calling as a graphic designer in Manhattan, where he also seduces a wealthy heiress and conquers his longtime fear of the Holland Tunnel. Families connect and disconnect throughout these stories. In ``Close,'' a social worker who counsels teenage suicide survivors panics en route to a funeral for her brother, who has died of AIDS, knowing that she'll have to deal with her unsympathetic siblings and parents. Difficult father/daughter reunions figure in ``Release,'' ``Normal,'' and ``Quinn's Wedding'': The first finds a tough-loving father picking up his truant runaway daughter from a mental hospital; the second reunites a runaway junkie daughter with her still hypercritical father—even though she's now clean, married, and a mother; and the last involves a moment of triumph for a middle-aged recovering druggie/alcoholic, who finally returns home to confront her pedophile father. Other tales feature a subway drunk, a self- mutilating girl, and a middle-manager on a fateful Colorado rafting trip. Some of the shorter pieces beg for development, and settle too readily for cynicism and glibness, but the strongest stories here make it clear that Nevai is a real talent with a ready wit and a steady gaze.

Pub Date: April 20, 1997

ISBN: 1-56512-158-9

Page Count: 238

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1997

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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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