Death, disabilities and dysfunction, dryly described, fill 11 stories of unrelenting unhappiness.

Testing the limits of well-meaning readers who want to give good writers a fair chance, Montemarano, whose 2001 novel A Fine Place was rooted in the racial conflicts of Bensonhurst, offers a succession of bleakly linked stories in which people go, for the most part, from bad to worse. The opening story presents an impatient and incompetent mother who carries out a threat to leave her young, innocently disobedient daughter in the park, where she is taken away forever by a probable pedophilic murderer. The narrator is the little girl’s brother, who was doomed to live with the wretched mother and an ineffective father into permanently scarred adulthood. There is a brace of stories narrated by a young man working, in the first, as attendant to a severely disabled couple and, in the second, as attendant to the surviving husband who blames him for the death of his wife. Unable to speak, the wife could communicate solely by animal-like noises and raised eyelids. Unable to feed herself, she was in constant danger of choking, which, in fact, at the opening of the second story, she has done. The cerebral palsy–afflicted husband, disagreeable in the extreme, can speak enough to berate the narrator at every turn. When the widower invites an equally handicapped chum over to watch a Yankees game, he directs the visitor to give his own flunky the afternoon off. The overworked attendant decides to take both gents off to Yankee Stadium, but the drunken trip (the guys in the wheelchair down many beers) gets side-routed to a lap-dance parlor where disaster predictably ensues. A later story features a dog thrown to its death from a window prior to even greater tragedy. The writing is all quite smooth, but one may be reminded of those weird German kindertotenlieder, lovely songs about childhood death.

Not a speck of warmth.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8071-3122-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Louisiana State Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2005

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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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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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