Refreshingly simple: A flexible new voice able to record the more subtle effects of racial tension.



Eleven debut stories from a voice determined to transcend the barrier of race.

Allen’s characters are mostly African-American, but you’d never really know it—these pieces often take place without the subject of race ever coming to the fore. Unlike a lot of fiction based on American racial tension, Allen’s tales shoot for a deeper, more profound experience, one that sometimes includes race but never relies on it. “Carved in Vinyl” concerns a woman whose assent into middle age triggers memories of a simpler time, when things were all “boss” and R&B; the title story follows a man on what may be his final ride home from work, an event inspiring quiet contemplation of life and marriage; the movement of a circus from town to town (“Mud Show”) makes for a convincing period piece and a potentially violent forum when an elephant gets sick and may go haywire; while “Marisol’s Things” follows two young sisters as they make the trek through childhood, young adulthood, eventual estrangement, and finally a subtle form of forgiveness. “Keep Looking” is a second-person account of a woman in a bookstore who feels a man’s eyes on her back; and another woman’s unusual medical condition makes for the stuff of freak shows in a period piece set in 1919. Much of the time, there seems a need in Allen to resist the penetration of race into her stories—and it’s a relief that she succeeds in banishing that customary obligation, to the extent she can, as does Tiffany, in “Yearbook:”: “She clenches the cross in a fist, reels back, and throws it as far away from her as she can. But it is very light, and travels only a few yards before it drops in the grass and lies there, glinting dully back at her.”

Refreshingly simple: A flexible new voice able to record the more subtle effects of racial tension.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-8262-1444-4

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Univ. of Missouri

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2002

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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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