THE PUGILIST AT REST

STORIES

These 11 mostly hard-luck stories, with their mean and nutty existential heroes and their punch-drunk visions of hell, place Jones right among the literary heavyweights. In many of these gritty tales, first-timer Jones displays the peculiar genius of the autodidact—someone who contemplates the great ideas on his own, and tests them against the rawest of everyday experiences. And rawness is all for the Vietnam vet at the center of three tales here. The title piece, a masterpiece of the form, taps the ``reservoir of malice and vicious sadism'' in its narrator's soul: in country, this madman brawler thrives on the rush of violence and the pure adrenalin of survival. In ``Break on Through,'' a psycho in the narrator's recon team finds redemption inches from death. But in Jones's dark world, it's only temporary: ``human behavior...is an abomination.'' ``The Black Lights,'' set in a vet neuropsych ward, is a harrowing tale worthy of Chekhov, as the narrator chronicles his unmanning by grand mal seizures, depressions, and drugs. Just when you think Jones might strike a lighter note in ``Wipeout'' or ``Mosquitos,'' he reveals his funny, bleak view. One narrator seduces women with his ``irresistible sort of psychopathic charisma,'' the other grudgingly seduces his brother's haughty wife. Equally edgy and disorienting, ``Unchain My Heart'' pokes fun at pantywaist editors while it explores, from a woman's view, the appeal of strong and courageous men. The only nice guy in ``Silhouettes'' is a retarded janitor; he's a ``noble innocent,'' and of course exploited by everyone. Life is ``the trip, the only trip'' for an insane, suicidal boxer (``as of July 6th...''); a cancer patient on her deathbed (``I Want to Live!''); and an advertising genius wandering Bombay in an epileptic fugue (``A White Horse''). ``Rocket Man,'' with its Nietzchean splendors, takes you down for the count. Dizzying combinations of prose punches with abstract bobs and weaves: a knockout.

Pub Date: June 7, 1993

ISBN: 0-316-47302-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1993

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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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