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. 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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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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