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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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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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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