A collection of prisoncentric stories that astonishes with its vibrancy and strong characters.

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The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club


Goodwin’s potent debut drama is a series of stories about the U.S. rehabilitation system and how criminal acts affect the lives of inmates and victims alike.

In the book’s opening story, “Blank Slate,” neo-Nazi prisoner Ray Hazen seems beyond redemption. A violent man full of animosity, he’s pacified by the trauma he experiences after fellow inmates beat him severely. But even if Ray can’t remember his past atrocities, other prisoners and correctional officers can, and their mistreatment may cause him to rediscover his unsavory former self. Such is the theme among these stories: whether a convicted criminal can truly be vindicated. “Hater,” for example, follows racist Walker Calloway, who tries to start a life with a woman outside the prison walls, while Sarah in “One to One” faces inmate John Sloat, who raped her, and debates whether she should use the opportunity to kill him. Goodwin bolsters his collection by tying stories together not just thematically, but with characters and plotlines as well. Herbert Valentine, a psychiatrist at maximum security prison Orrington, crops up in several stories, sometimes merely as a supporting character. Other tales have even stronger links: the titular short story, which involves social worker Duane Case’s sessions with the four men on Orrington’s death row, is trailed by “The Victim’s Father,” about a man obsessed with retribution against his daughter’s killer—one of those death row inmates. The final two stories, “Unaccompanied Minor” and “Soul Mate,” take first-person perspectives of two criminals. The former’s protagonist is Jeff Zwerling, whose time in a hospital wing may lead to forgiving his neglectful father, while the latter, the longest of the collection, deals with the rather unsettling Keith Mueller, who sees nothing wrong in stalking a woman he doesn’t know. Despite the subject matter, Goodwin’s book isn’t nearly as bleak as readers may anticipate. Certainly there are instances of brutality, like inmates assaulting one another and prisoners’ unmitigated bigotry. But most stories leave room for hope; some even encourage it. The title story, in particular, has a final, eloquent image of a “pristine snowfall” “in the muffled silence of a winter day.”

A collection of prisoncentric stories that astonishes with its vibrancy and strong characters.

Pub Date: March 17, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-63413-015-8

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Langdon Street Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2015

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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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