Humor comes easily to Rich, but he’s at his best when he pushes against the boundaries of his jokes.



Humorist Rich’s (The Last Girlfriend on Earth, 2013, etc.) latest collection is predictably funny, though sometimes digs deeper.

Imagine a petty, oft-rejected writer complaining to his girlfriend about the “literary establishment”: “They hate that I’m trying to do something new—it terrifies them!” It’s a familiar rant to the girlfriend, who leaves, feigning frustration, only to place a call as soon as she hits the sidewalk, whispering, “He’s onto us,” and then…well, never mind. This review shouldn’t ruin the punch line of Rich’s “Distractions,” for the pleasure of this and other pieces comes from watching each joke unfold. Unfortunately, this also suggests the book’s larger hindrance: There’s not much here besides the jokes. The result is amusing, sure, but slight, like watching an uneven episode of Saturday Night Live (where Rich once worked as a writer) in which some skits stick the landing, some provoke mild chuckles, and some offer the opportunity to use the bathroom or play with your phone. The nearly 80-page novella Sell Out suggests something much different, however. In it, a hardworking immigrant in early-20th-century Brooklyn is accidentally preserved in pickle brine, only to awaken 100 years later. He tracks down his great-great-grandson, the author himself, a self-absorbed, neurotic disappointment. This story is funny, but it gestures toward something deeper about the dreams we foist upon our family members and icons and also the ensuing disappointments. Elsewhere, Rich puts his jokes first, but in Sell Out, the characters are paramount, and readers ought to return to this story. Otherwise, once is the right amount of times to read most of these pieces—and given Rich’s breezy style, once won’t be a chore at all.

Humor comes easily to Rich, but he’s at his best when he pushes against the boundaries of his jokes.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-316-36862-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Aug. 14, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 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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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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