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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 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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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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