Mordantly bizarre and trenchantly observant, these stories stake out fresh territory in the nation’s literary landscape.


The 21st-century surge of African American voices continues with these mischievous, relentlessly inventive stories whose interweaving content swerves from down-home grit to dreamlike grotesque.

Cross River, Maryland, rural and suburban at once, exists only in the imagination of its inventor. And in his second collection, Scott (Insurrections, 2016) manages to make this region-of-the-mind at once familiar and mysterious, beginning with Cross River’s origins as a predominantly African American community established by leaders of the only successful slave revolt—which never really happened. Nor for that matter were there ever any sightings of God doling out jelly beans at Easter time in Cross River, as chronicled in the opener, “David Sherman, the Last Son of God,” whose main character is a guitar prodigy struggling through his fraught relations with local clergy and other pious folk to play the sounds only he can hear. (“God,” David remembers somebody telling him, “answers all prayers and sometimes His answer is no.”) In another story, Tyrone, a doctoral candidate in cultural studies at mythical Freedman's University, submits a thesis positing that the practice of knocking on strangers’ doors and running away is rooted in black slave insurrection; he recruits a friend for his thesis’s practical application with lamentable results. There are also a pair of science fiction stories, set in a futuristic Cross River, in which the customs—and abuses—of antebellum slavery are replicated by humans on robots and cyborgs, who, over time, resent their treatment enough to plot rebellion. And there’s a novella, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies, chronicling an academic year at the aforementioned Freedman's University during which professors and students alike struggle with their deepest, darkest emotions. Even before that climactic performance, you’ve figured out that Cross River is meant to be a fun-house mirror sending back a distorted, disquietingly mordant reflection of African American history, both external and psychic. Somehow, paraphrasing one of Scott’s characters, it all manages to sound made-up and authentic at the same time.

Mordantly bizarre and trenchantly observant, these stories stake out fresh territory in the nation’s literary landscape.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63149-538-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

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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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