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

THE SOUND OF HOLDING YOUR BREATH

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. 21, 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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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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