A sublime collection that uses compassion and subtle humor to capture heavy moments in lives lived on the margins.


A dozen colorful short stories set in the heart of darkness that is rural America.

This year’s winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, Cashion (How the Sun Shines on Noise, 2004, etc.) offers a nimble yet emotional portrait of rough-and-tumble small-town denizens trapped in prisons of their own making. The opener, “The Girl Who Drowned at School That Time,” centers on Josephine, a young college graduate who works as the administrative assistant at a local elementary school where one of the students has drowned in a nearby pond. In a Faulkner-ian turn, the town fathers decide that a fish fry is in order, right after they drain the pond and the local hooligans take baseball bats to the turtles. It’s a grotesque play made sadder by Josephine’s cool detachment from it all. The title story, which has been adapted into a short film by director Ben Sharony, is just a heartbreaker. It’s about a boy, Harold, who agrees to be baptized in order to date the girl he idolizes, only for her to abuse his affections in the end. Several stories capture the unique hurt of childhood. In “Penmanship,” a boy tortured by the nuns at his school moves away to live with his lowlife father only to learn some hard life lessons in the process. The real gift of these stories is that they center on some absurdity but never really make fun of the people they're portraying. In “A Serious Question,” a worn-out retiree goes on a pilgrimage to Wal-Mart with the priest who has befriended her, discovering a kind of epiphany in the journey. Another outstanding entry is “Awful Pretty,” a gothic-tinged story about a son who pines for his best friend’s company and struggles with his mother’s dementia.

A sublime collection that uses compassion and subtle humor to capture heavy moments in lives lived on the margins.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-57441-612-1

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Univ. of North Texas Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 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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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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