Newcomer King (son of Stephen, not that it matters) is a talent to watch.

The title novella of King’s first collection is its heart and soul: a powerful exploration of the flimsiness of political moral certainty compared to the strength of the unpredictable emotions that end up motivating individuals’ actions.

King sets his elegiac novella within a Maine family of idealists who, in the year 2000, have difficulty dealing with human imperfection. Resenting the well-meaning doctor to whom his mother Emma, an abortion clinic nurse, has become engaged, 15-year-old George hangs out with his recently widowed grandfather Henry, a retired labor organizer. Someone has vandalized the anti-Bush/pro-Gore sign Henry has put up in his yard; he suspects the ROTC cadet who was his newsboy until Henry had him fired for stealing the Sunday travel section. Now Henry plots paintball revenge. Meanwhile, George stops talking to his mother and rejects all friendly overtures from Dr. Vic. But when Emma threatens to leave Dr. Vic after Henry uncovers a donation the apolitical doctor made, under professional duress, to the Bush campaign, George begins to recognize that life isn’t as clear-cut as he thought. The novella pitches readers a barrage of emotional and philosophical curveballs as the characters—all likable, however flawed—are forced to discard their most prized assumptions. The four remaining stories, unfortunately, don’t live up to the novella. “Frozen Animals” is an ugly story about a dentist—somewhere in a northern wilderness—whose payment for treating a trapper’s wife is sex. “Wonders,” about a minor-league baseball team in the 1930s, shows the malleability of hate, while in “Snake,” the unhappy teenaged boy who’s a pale version of George never comes into real focus. “My Second Wife,” about the road trip a man takes after his wife leaves him, never pulls together, though it plays with interesting notions. The novella, though, like all great storytelling, has real strength.

Newcomer King (son of Stephen, not that it matters) is a talent to watch.

Pub Date: July 5, 2005

ISBN: 1-58234-585-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2005



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



Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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