A no-nonsense and informed reckoning with combat.

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A sharp set of stories, the author's debut, about U.S. soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their aftermaths, with violence and gallows humor dealt out in equal measure.

Klay is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, and the 12 stories reveal a deep understanding of the tedium, chaos and bloodshed of war, as well as the emotional disorientation that comes with returning home from it. But in the spirit of the best nonfiction writing about recent U.S. war vets (David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, for example), Klay eschews simple redemptive or tragic narrative arcs. The discomfiting “Bodies” is narrated by a Mortuary Affairs officer whose treatment of women back home is almost as equally coldhearted as he had to be when collecting remains, while “Prayer in the Furnace” is told from the perspective of a chaplain forced to confront a battalion that’s been bullied into a hyperviolent posture. Klay favors a clipped, dialogue-heavy style, and he’s skilled enough to use it for comic as well as dramatic effect. “OIF,” for instance, is a vignette that riffs on the military’s alphabet soup of acronyms and how they emotionally paper over war’s toll. (“And even though J-15 left his legs behind, at least he got CASEVAC’d to the SSTP and died on the table.”) The finest story in the collection, “Money as a Weapons System,” follows a Foreign Service Officer tasked with helping with reconstruction efforts in Iraq. His grand ambition to reopen a water treatment plant is slowly undone by incompetence, internecine squabbling and a congressman’s buddy who thinks there’s no problem in Iraq that teaching kids baseball won’t fix; Klay’s grasp of bureaucracy and bitter irony here rivals Joseph Heller and George Orwell. The narrators sound oddly similar throughout the book, as if the military snapped everybody into one world-wise voice. But it does make the book feel unusually cohesive for a debut collection.

A no-nonsense and informed reckoning with combat.

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59420-499-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2014

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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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