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Barton is generous and sympathetic toward his characters, no matter how much of a handful they are. A pleasing collection,...

Literate, deftly constructed stories of backwoods Alabama.

It wouldn’t be Southern fiction without a nod to Faulkner, and Barton gets a hint in early: He sets a hayrick on fire, synecdoche for a barn, and lets the smoke linger in the swampy air. Then there’s the land, always a central character in southerly writing: pastures, dark soil, brooding forest, river—the Tennahpush, in this case, as real and as not-real as Yoknapatawpha County. But Barton’s quiet homage and adherence to convention are just that; he’s an original. The opening story finds a folk artist on the point of giving it all up even as the young woman who helps out around the place looks hard at a dreary future. “You haven’t made anything new in a good while, Mr. Hutchins,” she says, yearning for something different from insulin shots, pill bottles and shot glasses. The art that she likes, she declares, involves things that will take a person away from all this; in a nice bit of symmetry, the closing words of the collection also point to the desire to leave a place that holds people fast. Barton’s best moments join human generations to that land in different times: Here a slave, hauntingly speaking of plantation violence, suddenly sees the possibility of an escape seemingly not available to most mortals, and there a modern countryman grapples not just with “crackheads and meth freaks” and other denizens of the bottomlands, but also the possibility of flying saucers. Barton is not a funny writer as such, but there is some sly humor at play, too, as when that flying saucer fellow allows that his daughter might just be a lesbian. “Lois says I make it sound like Margaret’s a monster when I say that. Like I might as well go around telling people that she turned into a werewolf, when I’m really the one who turned into a monster, according to Lois.”

Barton is generous and sympathetic toward his characters, no matter how much of a handful they are. A pleasing collection, humane and well-written.

Pub Date: March 17, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-938235-09-2

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Hub City Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 7, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

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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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A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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