An ambitious collection of short stories that heralds the coming of a new voice in American fiction.

AERIALISTS

An assortment of quirky, intricate stories connected by the theme of the circus.

A serial-killer clown drives a group of friends around a small town in search of the most convenient place to murder them. A woman abandoned by her husband finds comfort and solace in a lesbian relationship with a body builder who can pull trucks with ropes. A dead circus elephant is dissected by its caretaker in a desolate town. Such are the unmooring, whimsical tales that make up Mayer’s debut story collection. Mayer’s skill is unquestionable, and his range is astounding; he can render absurdist parables about the internet right next to historical fiction about the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union during the fall of the Iron Curtain. His strength lies in his subtle realist mode, when his focus on the inner lives of his characters allows the unconventionality of his style and his narrative decision-making to shine through. Stories written in Mayer’s surrealist mode sometimes feel so self-referential and lost in their own calculus that they don’t come together as well. Mayer’s prose is so compressed and exact that its dedication to strangeness sometimes undercuts the story it is telling, but historical frameworks provide Mayer with enough structure to make the twists and turns of his writing additive where elsewhere they subtracted from the tale. Unfortunately, the collection’s dedication to having the stories cohere around the circus theme feels forced and coerces the stories in a direction they wouldn’t have otherwise gone—their thematic interconnectedness is too often a stretch. In the end, Mayer’s debut effort is a somewhat flawed but memorable book.

An ambitious collection of short stories that heralds the coming of a new voice in American fiction.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63557-217-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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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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