A bold, flawed—and, on balance, quite promising—first effort.


Dour debut about Tennessee clan’s “lost grandeur”—and how it complicates the arduous process of self-healing undertaken by a guilty protagonist.

Elliott’s first is a patchwork of narrative, meditation, and detailed flashbacks, narrated by 28-year-old Tobia Caldwell, former amateur herpetologist, law student, and media consultant—and reluctant participant in Rollback, Inc., the family “reclamation project” that’s buying back formerly sold-off land and demolishing houses built over Confederate graves. The Caldwell pride in its history of aristocratic connections and military prowess is challenged by the reminiscences of octogenarian family friend Fenton Monroe (a grizzled eccentric accompanied everywhere by his pet leashed snapping turtle). And Tobias’s struggles with the past are deepened by his memory of luring a brash young neighbor to death by snakebite, when both boys were seven years old. Elliott handles in masterful fashion this crucial episode, and precisely, chillingly details the manner in which Tobia comes to understand how his (perhaps inbred?) arrogance and cruelty have shaped his maturing. But the story attempts too much, leaping about in time to depict Tobia’s unsettled amorous friendship with the dead boy’s twin sister; his brusquely truncated collegiate football career; the stagy protest demonstrations that interrupt a Caldwell reclamation “party”; and Tobia’s vacillating closeness to the father who has always expected too much of him and his angry, virtually unreachable stroke-ridden mother. The prose is exquisite, particularly whenever Elliott analyzes Tobia’s distracted fascination with the menacing creatures that are both agents of, and metaphors for, his own corruption and duplicity (“I loved the snakes darkly”). Given the power of such sequences, the tale’s relapse into multiple climactic resolutions feels almost completely unconvincing.

A bold, flawed—and, on balance, quite promising—first effort.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-399-15038-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2003

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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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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

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