McLean stages yearning and stasis with poignancy and wit.


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet



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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet