McLean stages yearning and stasis with poignancy and wit.

REPTILE HOUSE

Characters struggle to control slivers of their fates in the nine stories of McLean’s debut.

McLean’s protagonists are stuck. Carl of “Reptile House” doesn’t love his wife or his newborn child. Lilibeth of “Cold Snap” is literally frozen as her town experiences record-low temperatures. On the heels of a divorce, she reads self-improvement books and attempts to fix up her home, all while actively denying the dire situation: “Don’t believe this empty town,” she reminds herself. “This coldest cold. This Death of the World.” In “No Name Creek” we meet Ben, cast in the shadow of his older brother, Boak. McLean has a knack for stunning sentences that resonate with her characters’ circumstances. While peeing “twin arcs” next to a tree, Ben hears Boak tease him and looks up at the mountains. Ben notes, “The peaks jabbed at the sky and the sky just sat there and took it.” The third-person narrators frequently zoom out, locating the present moment within a cosmic frame. The effect is tragicomic; we witness the immense futility of characters’ lives. When Lilibeth washes her hair, for instance, we follow the water “down her forehead to sink to drain through pipes to tank to leach field, then down, down through pebbles and rocks in layers, between faults toward magma, only to steam up again, spit out someday, maybe some geyser, some national park with buffalo romping and children. Anyway, her hair was clean.” McLean incorporates organizational structures in a few stories: a list of rules in “For Swimmers” and excerpts from handbooks and checklists in “Blue Nevus.” These structures clutter the narrative slightly, taking away from the prose, which shines on its own.

McLean stages yearning and stasis with poignancy and wit.

Pub Date: May 12, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-938160-65-3

Page Count: 216

Publisher: BOA Editions

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

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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