Warm, generous stories.

A kind and earnest debut collection of connected stories set in blue-collar northeastern Pennsylvania.

MK and Colleen, former classmates at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School, reconnect as middle-aged women, both working retail jobs in a mall that’s just months away from closing its doors. From the outside, they seem to live just on the edge of despair and economic ruin, except both have too much moxie. In "St. Christopher on Pluto," for example, Colleen entangles MK in a plot to ditch Colleen's car by the Susquehanna River for insurance money. While MK lectures Colleen on committing fraud, Colleen wisecracks and tells MK to lighten up. That's the setup of many of McKinley's stories: Bighearted, redheaded Colleen has a scheme (or a volunteer gig), and she wheedles practical MK, often the narrator, into coming along. These slice-of-life stories touch upon social issues on the verge of fracturing already economically stressed, conservative communities: immigration, America's never-ending post–9/11 wars, the HIV epidemic, drug addiction, and the disappearance of good blue-collar jobs. In "Complicado," Colleen volunteers to photograph an ESL class graduation, but it turns out the women don't want their pictures taken for fear of becoming the target of a rising tide of jingoism. Once she understands, Colleen yanks the film from her camera, and the party ends with the church organist's offering her accordion to a young Mexican man, "the Latin sounds creat[ing] fusion in a room steeped with polka fests." While we yearn for such happy endings in life, they can seem a bit treacly in fiction. When McKinley resists the lure of “Kumbayah” moments, she delivers emotionally devastating stories about how places with bleak economic futures hurt good, ordinary people—as well as how such people quietly craft lives full of intangible bounty.

Warm, generous stories.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-949199-26-0

Page Count: 228

Publisher: West Virginia Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019



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




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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