An awkward start.

It’s not the animals, but the clueless humans who dominate this amorphous story collection, the author’s debut.

Of the ten stories (and two short flights of fancy), the longest, "Airbag," has been split into three nonconsecutive segments. It’s about a midget, Dorlene, who claims to be the seventh shortest person in the country. She’s described almost exclusively in terms of her size; that’s reductive, offensively so. She’s been brought to a party at a farm outside Seattle; she’s a former student of Tom, the host. Dorlene’s no higher than crotch level (cue the oral-sex joke). Tom has a truly enormous dog, which he’s forgotten to shut away; it looms over Dorlene, who’s so panicked she wets herself. The ending will not be pleasant. There is more foolishness in the next longest story: "Putting the Lizard to Sleep." A 5-year-old’s pet lizard loses part of its tail and has to be euthanized by the vet. John, the father, had been hoping to retrieve the dead lizard: “I wanted him to see what dead is.” But the lizard’s already been cremated, so John and his live-in girlfriend pretend they have the dead lizard in a box (it’s actually a sausage link). The ponderously delivered moral is that lying to kids doesn’t work. The other stories are even less developed. "Opinion of Person" is a study of anomie. Two housemates are united by their loathing of a cat, whose owner is away at work. James, in "Momentary," has lost his hand in an act of self-mutilation. He’s under observation in a mental hospital, yet there are no insights into his condition. "The Lion" is just as wispy. A wheelchair-bound woman has made a lion out of fabric. Will it be a Frankenstein’s monster? Who knows? And who knows what’s going on in "Jane," between the ghost and her sleeping ex-lover? As Sanders writes elsewhere, “Confusion burbles thickly.”

An awkward start.

Pub Date: July 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-55597-616-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2012



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



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: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013