A memorable debut: each of these stories is as original and multidimensional as the characters who inhabit them.


A varied cast of mothers, miners, school kids, and mountain folk grapple with desire, poverty, and, yes, even monsters in 15 stories set across Appalachia.

Monks’ stories are so wide-ranging—from all-too-real portrayals of the horrors of adolescence to deep dives into the fantastical—that they’re difficult to classify as a whole. What most of them have in common are characters trying to do the best they can in a landscape often dark and unforgiving. In the opening story, “Burning Slag,” a woman who's lost her son to foster care spies on him from her car and employs a most disturbing strategy to try to get him back. Told in retrospect, “Merope” is about a young man’s kind-of-sweet, kind-of–mean-spirited flirtation with a girl who “wasn’t much to look at.” Poverty is a theme throughout. In “Little Miss Bobcat,” a young girl hopes to “win a genuine quartz crown” by soliciting the most contributions for her school fundraiser, despite her family’s own lack of money. An encounter between a shop owner and a mother using food stamps to buy groceries is the seemingly mundane premise behind the masterful “Clinch.” While many of the stories here are rooted in the everyday, the speculative offerings are equally satisfying. “Rasputin’s Remarkable Sleight of Hand” features a carnival magician who knows, in the age of cellphones and selfies, that he needs to up the “razzle-dazzle” in his act, and he attempts it in a way few readers will anticipate. In “Black Shuck,” a man who tends to and then gives away a stray dog becomes obsessed with the idea that misfortune will befall him if he can’t get it back. And in the hallucinatory title story, inner demons are substituted with actual ones, as an older couple is forced to contend with monsters.

A memorable debut: each of these stories is as original and multidimensional as the characters who inhabit them.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-943665-39-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Vandalia Press/West Virginia Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 23, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2016

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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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