A creepier, more macabre side of Ireland is revealed in the 16 stories here, an arresting, prizewinning debut collection from McCormack in which axes, knives, and transgressive acts figure prominently. The lead story, “The Gospel of Knives,” sets the tone for what follows, as a female hawker of knives persuades a young man, none too gently, that she has goods he can’t do without. One of the few other female characters appears in “The Stained Glass Violations,— in which a librarian sitting on a park bench during her lunch break meets a retired circus freak, a glass-eater, and soon finds herself drawn into an act of glass-eating that sparks what may be a miracle. A transformation of a grimmer kind (in —The Angel of Ruin—) is worked on a sallow Irish youth in the US who’s been hired to help demolish a dangerously contaminated industrial site. Other forms of unsavory change involve a sculptor who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his art (“Thomas Crumlesh 1960—1992: A Retrospective—), chopping himself up over the years with the help of a whacked-out surgeon, who finally cuts off the artist’s head and bleaches it according to his instructions for the Documenta, an avant garde art show in Germany. The title story features a pair of brothers, the younger brilliant and deeply twisted (he laughs while reading about the plague and other human disasters), the older a dark-haired drunk with a temper. They loathe each other, but when the brainy one sets off a homemade explosive that kills his best friend, the drunk’s instinct is to protect him—until goaded to the point where a baser instinct takes over. Comparisons to Poe are apt, and while shocks here on occasion seem only stunts, there’s no denying McCormack’s knack for throwing a harsh light on some of life’s grimmer corners. Disturbing, audacious work.

Pub Date: May 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-8050-5371-9

Page Count: 232

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1998

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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: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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