Although the uplift can get heavy-handed, at her best, Sojourner (29, 2014, etc.) uses passion, high-energy storytelling,...

THE TALKER

In this novella and seven stories set in the southwest, the mostly working-class characters struggle to rise beyond their pasts and their own worst tendencies with varying degrees of success.

In the opening story, “Great Blue,” a restaurant worker with a history of “bad choices” falls for a “sweet-skinny and ginger-haired” dishwasher with a master’s degree, a killer recipe for marinated olives, and a taste for drugs. Despite moments of genuine sweetness, it doesn’t end well. “Fat Jacks” is bittersweet but more hopeful as a former computer salesman, now night shift “Security Engineer,” makes a strenuous effort to pull his life together when his ex-wife understandably finds him too irresponsible to trust with their young son. Four stories deal with grief: after her father’s sudden death, a teenager takes a part-time job at a nursing home where she bonds, not quite believably, with a former biker over the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir”; “Sign,” which has an autobiographical feel given its writer narrator, offers a nuanced exploration of grief that combines love, anger, and a middle-aged daughter’s grudging identification with her dead father; an upwardly mobile Native American college student returns to her aunt’s double-wide to mourn her cousin’s suicide in “Up Near Pasco”; and in “Nautiloid,” the jokey tone of the gay narrator never masks his sorrow over the death of his best friend from cancer. Less successful, the long story “Cyndra Won’t Get Out of the Truck,” about the failing marriage between a Marine who returns from Iraq with a drinking problem and the young wife who gambles away their savings, leans on a message of salvation through recovery groups. And the eponymous novella, about a community of losers on the mend in a semicommune threatened by an insidiously dangerous newcomer, is too thick with serpent-in-Eden, good-and-evil imagery and melodrama.

Although the uplift can get heavy-handed, at her best, Sojourner (29, 2014, etc.) uses passion, high-energy storytelling, and unflinching empathy to break the reader’s heart.

Pub Date: March 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-937226-69-5

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Torrey House Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2017

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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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