THE EXIT COACH

These stories feel like portraits of lives scaled down to pivotal moments, but together they form a mural of humanity in...

A novella and six short stories each find people on the brink of change.

Staffel (Lessons in Another Language, 2010) is not gentle with her characters. “Leaving the Meadows” follows a man as he moves his mother from an assisted living facility to a space that can better accommodate her changing needs, while he’s also distracted by a problem at work. More than one story builds upon confrontations between women: the woman who refuses to help a friend in “Arrogance” immediately questions the impulse, but Lana in “Three Rivers” ends a relationship that has become a financial burden and ends up finding a moment of human connection. Fairly routine activities have a polished truth about them in these stories; the couple at the heart of “Mischief” are a massage therapist and school superintendent, and glimpses into their work lives and daily concerns generate empathy for the things they do without telling one another (including the adoption of the titular goat). The Exit Coach, a novella, runs on change and self-discovery. Marilyn changes her name to Ava to establish distance from her burlesque dancer–turned–MTA driver mother, Cleopatra, and takes a job caring for an elderly man that leads her in loop after loop back to where she came from. The description of the health care job and the way Ava is slyly drafted into a performing arts career that draws on her mother’s brassiness exudes grit with a dash of glamour; it’s easy to get absorbed in the world of creating a show, having it succeed, and dealing with the ego flare-ups that ensue. Ava’s triumph is that she doesn’t make one defining change but keeps adapting to circumstances until she begins to feel her own will at the heart of her decisions, and it’s a pleasure to share in.

These stories feel like portraits of lives scaled down to pivotal moments, but together they form a mural of humanity in common.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-935536-80-2

Page Count: 169

Publisher: Four Way

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2016

Categories:

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

Categories:

SIGHTSEEING

STORIES

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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