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THE SOUND OF HOLDING YOUR BREATH

A portrait of small-town residents grappling with the good and evil in and around them.

Fourteen stories peel back the lives of men and women in present-day Appalachia.

Much of Sypolt’s debut collection is set in a small town called Warm, “a place where no one cares if you live in a trailer,” which many of the characters do. The Golden Egg, a restaurant/bar, is a common landmark. Its frequent mentions across the book further establish the strong sense of setting that unifies the stories. Most residents have known one another since childhood, and neighbors witness each other’s tragedies. There is violence everywhere: drownings, domestic abuse, rape, murders, runaways and disappearances. All are told, however, with a similar quiet, retrospective tone. Sometimes, the tone clashes with the content. Narrators fail to describe the full urgency and intensity of a scene. They do acknowledge this: “There’s no way to tell it that doesn’t sound like a cliché,” Marianne says of her brother having shot and killed his wife. Elsewhere, hiding a body is compared to a movie: “The only way to go about it was to pretend it was a movie, and we were actors.” Even in “Lettuce,” a haunting story with a subtle, more emotional central conflict, the narrator notes that her life feels like “some melodramatic, made-for-TV movie.” Still, the book is full of powerful images—a tiny figure of Jesus set on fire in a church attic is just one example—and the questions characters are left with will haunt the reader, too.

A portrait of small-town residents grappling with the good and evil in and around them.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-946684-57-8

Page Count: 168

Publisher: West Virginia Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 20, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

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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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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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