Somewhat marred by stock Southern regionalism, though the best stories rise above cliché.

THE SOUTHERN CROSS

Geography and chronology link the stories in Horack’s debut, set along the Gulf Coast in the year of Hurricane Katrina.

Winner of the 2008 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize for fiction, this collection recalls the hard-boiled Southern sensibility of Larry Brown, though the author has yet to equal Brown’s command of tone and depth of character. Stories vary in length—some vignettes are as short as a page and a half—and in quality, from engagingly subtle to ponderous. Among the heaviest-handed is “The Journeyman,” whose portents telegraph their punches. After a little girl in her Sunday church dress discovers a serpent under a man’s porch, she warns, “God and Jesus are up to something…Reverend Gary says they gonna punish this city soon enough.” Prophesized in the “Spring” section (the collection is organized by season), the punishment arrives by the end of “Summer.” “The Redfish,” perhaps the best piece, evokes Katrina and its aftermath in a parable of innocence, guilt and redemption. In other tales, protagonists deal with moral ambiguities. “The High Place I Go” depicts a nurse, convinced that her husband is cheating on her and that the end of their marriage is imminent, who becomes involved with one of her patients. A commercial fisherman finds romantic comfort with the young Mexican woman who does his cleaning, whom others suspect of being a prostitute, in “Burke’s Maria.” Even before the hurricane, many of these characters lead hard lives, though not all of them are hard people. The closest they come to philosophy is, “ain’t it funny where life takes us?”

Somewhat marred by stock Southern regionalism, though the best stories rise above cliché.

Pub Date: Aug. 12, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-547-23278-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2009

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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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