There’s precious little moral sense ballasting the unrelenting cruelty. Only a sadist, or a masochist, would read this...




The dark prince of the American stage and indie cinema debuts with 20 baleful vignettes.

Only LaBute would call these “seconds of pleasure,” even ironically. Inches beneath the rambling bonhomie in the monologues and dialogues is the unflinching brutality of their casual betrayals and taboo-busting. “Anyway, it was good to see him again. Really, it was,” concludes a young woman after luring the father who abandoned her family into a motel room and seducing him. When he’s in a sunny mood, LaBute gives the patron whose car battery has run down outside a strip club a helping hand (“Open All Night”). When he’s coasting in neutral, he remakes fables like Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark” (“Perfect,” in which a wife’s tiny imperfection drives her husband crazy) or Eric Rohmer’s film Claire’s Knee (“Boo-Boo,” whose narrator can’t rest till he’s touched the scab on the heroine’s leg). More often, he’s thought of his own fiendish ways to unmask his characters’ slimy pretensions as they humiliate each other. A college student sweats to break up with his girlfriend on a tight deadline (“Spring Break”). A traveler flirts with a stranger in an airport knowing he’s going to have to ditch her within minutes (“Layover”). A flight attendant spots her current lover’s wife on a transatlantic flight (“Whitecap”). An amateur filmmaker recalls the first time he and a buddy screen-tested a prostitute for a special video (“Ravishing”). LaBute’s whiplash command of the ironic distance between his heroes’ self-excusing blather (only a Hollywood actor’s uncomfortable reunion with the “girl-slash-woman” he’d bedded and forgotten strikes a false note) is so uncanny that every story stings.

There’s precious little moral sense ballasting the unrelenting cruelty. Only a sadist, or a masochist, would read this poisoned volume through at a sitting. But, as LaBute might say, doesn’t that include us all?

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-8021-1785-6

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2004

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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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A welcome introduction to a major author and a pleasure for fans of contemporary European literature.


Thoughts on travel as an existential adventure from one of Poland’s most lauded and popular authors.

Already a huge commercial and critical success in her native country, Tokarczuk (House of Day, House of Night, 2003) captured the attention of Anglophone readers when this book was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. In addition to being a fiction writer, Tokarczuk is also an essayist and a psychologist and an activist known—and sometimes reviled—for her cosmopolitan, anti-nationalist views. Her wide-ranging interests are evident in this volume. It’s not a novel exactly. It’s not even a collection of intertwined short stories, although there are longer sections featuring recurring characters and well-developed narratives. Overall, though, this is a series of fragments tenuously linked by the idea of travel—through space and also through time—and a thoughtful, ironic voice. Movement from one place to another, from one thought to another, defines both the preoccupations of this discursive text and its style. One of the extended stories follows a man named Kunicki whose wife and child disappear on vacation—and suddenly reappear. A first-person narrator offers a sort of memoir through movement, recalling her own peregrinations bit by bit. There are pilgrims and holidaymakers. Tokarczuk also explores the connection between travel and colonialism with side trips into “exotic” practices and cabinets of curiosity. There are philosophical digressions, like a meditation on the flight from Irkutsk to Moscow that lands at the same time it takes off. None of this is to say that this book is dry or didactic. Tokarczuk has a sly sense of humor. It’s impossible not to laugh at the opening line, “I’m reminded of something that Borges was once reminded of….” Of course someone interested in maps and territories, of the emotional landscape of travel and the difference between memory and reality would feel an affinity for the Argentine fabulist.

A welcome introduction to a major author and a pleasure for fans of contemporary European literature.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-53419-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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