ST. CHRISTOPHER ON PLUTO

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. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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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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