A flat, emotionless style deadens the impact of this debut collection of short stories and a novella. Nasty and neutral men (and boys) people these stories, but a good one is hard to find. In ``Starkweather's Eyes,'' the narrator remembers the time shortly after his father left him and his mother in Nebraska, where a serial killer roamed. Carroll is ``Babyman,'' a con artist who impregnates women in order to sell the resulting children. The narrator of ``What Hurts the Fish,'' a boy spending his days with a woman named Evelyn—who wears a special prosthetic shoe because she was dropped and crippled as a baby—starts out sentimentally (``I love Evelyn, but I'm afraid of her shoe''), but soon shoots another boy in the eye with a BB gun and hides what he has done. Condon's female characters are equally unfeeling. In ``Coffee,'' a woman whose father called her ``sex-sick'' when she got pregnant at 18 coolly has sex with a man her now 11-year-old son met at the beach. ``The Velvet Shelf'' shows Natalie responding to her boyfriend being brought to her door by the police (he buried her puppy after it was run over by a car, then went back to dig it up, fearing that he'd buried it alive) by taking it as an opportunity to break up with him. There is plenty of violence too. In ``The Emptyheart Boy'' a recently divorced man listens to his female neighbor being abused by three low-lifes without doing anything, even when his girlfriend urges him to, because ``down deep I was afraid of people, period.'' The short novella ``River Street'' follows a drifter to a sleazy motel where he is attacked and raped. Too macho for its own good.

Pub Date: Dec. 9, 1994

ISBN: 0-87074-372-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Southern Methodist Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1994

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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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