Accomplished and promising.



Ten debut stories that draw most of their inspiration from the author’s background in engineering and then a stint working in product development for the Ford Motor Company.

“But when he mentioned engineering, his old man was incredulous. He said in a mock-gentle tone, ‘But, Duke, how can you be an engineer when you’re always breaking things?’ ” Engineering becomes the controlling metaphor here: if characters work together or fail to do so, it’s usually connected to the machines around them and to the thinking and history that brought them into being. The title story is a quasi-historical account of the lighting of Luna Park and the subsequent electrocution of an elephant named Topsy, while in “What They Teach you in Engineering School,” the progress of engineering technology measures the educational distance between a father and son even as they both realize, after a sudden trauma, that they’re all either of them has. The final piece (“Aeronautics”) is another history of early aeronauts, the warriors who made war three-dimensional, and made balloons weapons as surely as men or muskets are weapons. “Telescope” is a single sentence short-short that plays with the engineering of sentences; and when a prototype SUV breaks down in backwater Michigan (“The Prototype”), it’s a chance for a local mechanic to fool its fish-out-of-water engineers and possibly engineer for himself a lost love. While Arvin’s prose often centers on the inner workings of things on the near-mechanical level (“Instead he sat frozen and hyperaware of himself—of the noise of his breath, the twitch of his toes against his shoes, the clutch of the muscles in his chest”), the emotions are always real, enlivened by the context that gives them life and shape. One wonders why only one of these stories has been published before, and what’s likely to happen when this author shifts to a longer form that will allow his vision the breadth it really needs to develop and grow.

Accomplished and promising.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2003

ISBN: 0-14-200256-9

Page Count: 220

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2002

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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