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

THE EXIT COACH

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 31, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2016

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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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