The cigarette analogy of “Smoke-Long Stories” would seem to apply—if you smoke a pack straight through, few will be...


The title of this collection of very short stories is its most provocative element.

The publisher calls this book "Flash Fiction," which is described as “the love child of Narrative and Meth Amphetamine.” The foreword proceeds to offer other names for this kind of fiction, saying that “the most charming sobriquet comes from China: Smoke-Long Stories. A narrative that can be read in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette.” More than 50 stories fit within little more than 100 pages, and they range in length from one paragraph to a couple of pages. They rarely relate to each other, except for two consecutive stories, “Homage” and "Eat at the Downingtown Diner Located Conveniently in Downtown Downingtown," which mention Steve McQueen and seem more like one story. The author's previous books are mostly poetry collections and novels for teenagers (The Ogre’s Wife, 2013, etc.). Here, he draws from classic mythology, Lois Lane’s diary, exchanges between students and schoolteachers, and reflections on the nature of storytelling. Among the more memorable are “University of the Dark," in which the afterlife is an eternal library (“There are a lot worse things than being dead”), and “Principles of Handicapping,” which applies the horse-racing model to, say, “a filly named Teen Age Temptress [who] prefers weekends to weekdays. Past performances show that she tends to sulk and toss her rider on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.” “Money and a Room of One’s Own” concerns a plan to start a small publishing house dedicated to the “marginalized and unappreciated.” 

The cigarette analogy of “Smoke-Long Stories” would seem to apply—if you smoke a pack straight through, few will be memorable, though perhaps rationing them to one at a time over a longer period will enhance the experience.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59709-544-0

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Red Hen Press

Review Posted Online: July 24, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

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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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