Not every story works, but Gay is an admirable risk-taker in her exploration of women’s lives and new ways to tell their...

DIFFICULT WOMEN

A collection of stories unified in theme—the struggles of women claiming independence for themselves—but wide-ranging in conception and form.

The women who populate this collection from the novelist and essayist Gay (Bad Feminist, 2014, etc.) are targets for aggressions both micro and macro, from the black scholar in “North Country” who receives constant unwelcome advances and questions of “Are you from Detroit?” to the sisters brutally held in captivity while teenagers in the bracing and subtle “I Will Follow You.” Gay savvily navigates the ways circumstances of gender and class alter the abuses: “Florida” is a cross-section of the women in a wealthy development, from the aimless, neglected white housewives to the Latina fitness trainer who’s misunderstood by them. The men in these stories sometimes come across as caricatures, archetypal violent misogynist-bigots like the wealthy white man playing dress-up with hip-hop culture and stalking the student/stripper in “La Negra Blanca.” But again, Gay isn’t given to uniform indictments: “Bad Priest” is a surprisingly tender story about a priest and the woman he has an affair with, and “Break All the Way Down” is a nuanced study of a woman’s urge for pain in a relationship after the loss of her son. Gay writes in a consistently simple style, but like a longtime bar-band leader, she can do a lot with it: repeating the title phrase in “I Am a Knife” evokes the narrator’s sustained experience with violence, and the title story satirizes snap judgments of women as “loose,” “frigid,” and “crazy” with plainspoken detail. When she applies that style to more allegorical or speculative tales, though, the stories stumble: “Requiem for a Glass Heart” is an overworked metaphorical study of fragility in relationships; “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is ersatz science fiction about the sun’s disappearance; “Noble Things” provocatively imagines a second Civil War but without enough space to effectively explore it.

Not every story works, but Gay is an admirable risk-taker in her exploration of women’s lives and new ways to tell their stories.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2539-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Oct. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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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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