Intimate portraits of loneliness and longing.

A captivating debut collection probes the trauma of being human.

In 15 assured, haunting, and deeply empathetic stories, Hoagland imagines characters struggling with loss and beset by a disquieting, persistent sense of the fragility of life. A mother reacts to her parents’ wartime deaths by reverting to childhood, shrinking until she becomes “a tiny shape” requiring care from her adolescent daughter. A young woman stunned by her teenage brother’s suicide wishes she had seen warning signs. “I’m still just stuck as the unfruitful, albeit disappointed survivor,” she admits, as she replays her last conversations with her brother, innocuous exchanges filled with “idioms, clichés, old wives’ words.” A father, realizing he cannot protect his maturing daughter from harm, wishes his world could remain “intact,” like “an uncut peach.” Like many of Hoagland’s characters, he feels overcome by “the shape of loss he was afraid may someday loom over him.” A few of the 15 stories, most previously published in literary journals, evoke the slyly surreal worlds of Lydia Davis: “American Family Portrait, Clockwise From Upper Right” depicts ghosts, “gendered remains, hollowed beauty, amazing absence,” and a mother’s “head tilt of love.” In “Six and Mittens,” the narrator, diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia, reveals her imaginary friends, who sometimes erupt like “a noise in your brain that hurts,” and describes in chilling detail the fierce conflict between her parents, at “wit’s end” over how to treat her illness. Several characters have been traumatized by violence: An elderly woman recalls her complicity in the execution of witches in 17th-century Salem; a dinner guest recalls an Aztec feast that devolves into bloodshed; an Iraq War veteran and a woman whose parents died in a murder-suicide confront the unlikely possibility of becoming “a normal, happy couple.” In their quiet revelations, Hoagland’s characters give voice to the disquieting fears and dark secrets that, as one character puts it, produce “heartbreaking revisions of our world.”

Intimate portraits of loneliness and longing.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-949199-21-5

Page Count: 168

Publisher: West Virginia Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019



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



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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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