A new talent in need of some honing.



Debut collection delineating the tribulations of boyhood, and how they define a man.

Set in Wisconsin, these ten stories feature an upper-Midwestern landscape’s deep snow drifts, acres of farmland and encroaching suburbs, which play a defining role in the characters’ lives. “Puberty” shows an adolescent finding both sexual enlightenment and retributive justice in a strategically planted climbing tree. In “Black Earth, Early Winter Morning,” a 16-year-old boy must reconsider all the advice his older cousin has given him about the value of country living when a tower of improperly stacked hay bales falls on his mentor. Dan Oxford, protagonist of “The Future, the Future, the Future,” has a wife, a good job, a child on the way and a 30-year mortgage locked in at a good rate; now that he’s achieved all the goals he set for himself in college, he decides to mark his accomplishment by skiing an expert slope he can’t handle. The collection features many action scenes, most of them well-written: a boy with his hands in his pockets cannot save himself from a disfiguring fall (“So Long, Anyway”); a drowning student disrupts a swimming class (“Crow Moon”); a widower on an emotional rampage caroms down a ski slope on a stolen sled (“The Cold War”). But sometimes the author pushes action to comic-book extremes, as in “English Cousin,” which shows a bully goading a boy to climb down a chimney and surprise two lovers (he gets stuck), or “Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow,” narrated by a snack-food specialist who attends a convention in San Francisco, where a homeless man teaches him a killing maneuver. The most powerful stories here are more quietly observed. “The Train” is a vignette about a group of boys who visit an abandoned granary at midnight on Halloween. “The Whales” features the same characters walking at night to a park by a lonesome county highway.

A new talent in need of some honing.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2006

ISBN: 0-307-27535-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Vintage

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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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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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: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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