Depressing, banal, forgettable fiction.



This omnibus collection of 20 stories is packaged with a CD containing 20 love songs also written by Burgin.

That is this unnecessary volume’s only distinction. For Burgin, who teaches at Saint Louis University and has published three earlier collections (Fear of Blue Skies, 1997, etc.), is a monotonous writer who strikes the same chords repeatedly. Most of his characters are inchoate loners and losers, driven by the need for romantic or sexual connection, obsessed with defining, and thereby understanding, themselves. And they all sound the same: the timid ad man who finds initial stimulation, then confirmation of his darkest fears, among a group of men who emulate admired celebrities (“The Identity Club”); the vacationing banker who indulges fantasies of power and control in a brief borderline-homoerotic encounter with a clueless young stud (“Bodysurfing”); a would-be Lothario who picks up a beautiful girl in a bookstore but fails to ensnare her by concocting a story about his nonexistent marriage and his losses (“The Liar”); and the famous conductor who artfully seduces an admiring young journalist (“Song of the Earth,” which was later developed into Burgin’s 1999 novel, Ghost Quartet). There’s hardly a graceful image or an engaging turn of phrase here. And too many of its stories begin with hopeful meetings of strangers who’ve come together anticipating sex or love but end up either perpetrating or suffering verbal or physical abuse (“Vacation,” “The Horror Conference,” “With All My Heart,” “Carbo’s,” “The Urn,” etc). Only two stories rise above the general level of mediocrity: an unhappy husband’s fantasizing of hiring an unlikely new acquaintance to murder his wife (“Ghost Parks”); and a gradually exfoliating realization, in “The Victims,” that the seemingly brilliant friend whom its narrator admires and envies is, in fact, “a thirty-five-year-old man who’s never accomplished anything in his life.”

Depressing, banal, forgettable fiction.

Pub Date: Oct. 17, 2005

ISBN: 0-86538-115-1

Page Count: 300

Publisher: Ontario Review

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2005

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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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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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