An uneven but fascinating collection of 20 stories (dating from 1950—68): a welcome companion volume to 1997’s The Springs of Affection, which likewise showcased the work of the late (1916—93) New Yorker staff writer. Many of the pieces here previously appeared in Brennan’s In and Out of Never-Never Land (1969) and Christmas Eve (1974). All are uniformly limpid, precisely phrased glimpses of (mostly) Irish-American women imperfectly adapting to their new lives. In several related stories, set in “Herbert’s Retreat,” a posh Hudson River enclave north of New York City, Brennan bleakly observes the social maladroitness of Leona Harkey, a parvenu trying nervously to “fit in,” and the acidulous preciosity of her permanent guest-mentor, persnickety theater critic Charles Runyon (“Taffeta? Leona, how could you!—). Another group of stories records—quite convincingly—the —adventures,” and even the thoughts and dreams, of Bluebell, an aging Labrador retriever who inhabits a fabricated milieu that’s both old-moneyed exurbia and (it seems, literally) “never-never land.” But the real heart of the collection beats in five superb tales focused with Chekhovian concentration on “little” people vulnerable to both changing personal circumstances and the simple passage of time: the irascible “ladies’-room lady” (“The Holy Terror”) who outlives her usefulness, and takes a petty, ineffectual revenge on her tormentors; the country woman (of “The Beginning of a Long Story”) too “eternally unsure of herself” to accept her family’s unconditional love; the self-deluding “artistic” couple (“The Bohemians”) who render their dutiful son unfit for any life outside their own artificial orbit. Brennan had a real genius tor tracing the downward arcs followed by people who perversely throw away their best chances for happiness. Her finest stories resemble and rival the fiction of Frank O’Connor and Mary Lavin, and are well worth retrieving.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2000

ISBN: 1-58243-050-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1999

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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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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