Fine storytelling that achieves universality while remaining rooted in a particular time and place.



Love troubles roil the lives of Mexican-Americans in ten superbly grounded stories.

They live on the wrong side of the tracks in a small Valley town near Fresno, Calif. They clean houses, do maintenance work at the paper mill. They suffer under “the fists of daily living,” and their marriages are “as tenuous as spiderwebs.” Several of the men are gay, which makes an awkward fit with their lives as sons and brothers and neighbors. Nobody realizes this more painfully than Sergio in “The Comeuppance of Lupe Rivera.” His gorgeous acquaintance Lupe has a succession of boyfriends, and when her married lover is stabbed by his wife’s brother, the neighbors try to intervene; those same neighbors stay out of sight when Sergio’s ex-boyfriends harass him. In “The Heart Finds Its Own Conclusion,” Sergio’s tenderhearted cousin Cecilia waits for him outside a bus station in Fresno, but she’s unable to save him from the vicious lover he’s fleeing. The complex negotiations between gay and straight society are depicted with particular subtlety in “Ida y Vuelta.” The decent Roberto had been extraordinarily helpful to his undeserving lover Joaquín, so the latter’s family allowed their gratitude to mask their deep distaste for the relationship. Muñoz (Zigzagger, not reviewed) also looks at parent/child interactions. “When You Come into Your Kingdom” is a moving study in thwarted paternal love: Following his son’s suicide, which he had provoked, Santiago acknowledges their shared loneliness. In the title story, Emilio’s father nurses him tenderly after his legs are crushed in a forklift accident. Connie cannot save her 17-year-old son Isidro, mortally wounded by a motorcycle accident in “Lindo y Querido,” but she does come to accept his love for the boy he rode with, now also dead.

Fine storytelling that achieves universality while remaining rooted in a particular time and place.

Pub Date: May 4, 2007

ISBN: 1-56512-532-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2007

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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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