Sometimes heavy-handed, always heavy-hearted.



Novelist Daugherty (The Boy Orator, 1999, etc.) returns with a collection of eight stories about mostly unhappy denizens of “Mama Houston.”

In “Comfort Me With Apples,” a folklorist named George, whose wife and parents have died in a freak traffic accident, becomes entwined in a family of illegal immigrants until the mother snaps and drowns her children. In “Tombstone Television,” George reappears to befriend a homeless man living at the cemetery where George has buried his family. In both stories, as in much of the collection, a middle-class white man confronts his own unhappiness while observing the authentically down-and-out. The narrator of “A Worried Song After Work” is a labor lawyer on a blind date with a perky blond. When he drags her along to a meeting of disgruntled workers, he assumes that she is too materialistic to appreciate the issues he cares about, but she, like most of Daugherty’s women, turns out to be a tough cookie. Romance blossoms even as hope for improving the workers’ condition fades. Even in stories that do not directly concern Houston’s underclass, the city comes across as a corrupt and depressing place peopled by Daugherty’s lonely, vaguely ineffective protagonists. Henry, of “Henry’s Women,” is dumped by his girlfriend because he doesn’t notice she’s had an abortion only to fall in love with a pregnant woman whose husband has left her. In “The Leavings of Panic,” the narrator recalls his mother’s impatience with his father’s passivity as he contemplates stealing a good friend’s wife. While the protagonist of “Bliss” appears on his way to artistic success away from Houston, the story is set in the murky zone of regret in the weeks of packing up before he leaves town—and his wife and child. In the final piece, “Burying the Blues,” Hugh, a junior-college history professor obsessed with black blues, gradually recognizes that truly knowing another culture, or even another individual, is impossible.

Sometimes heavy-handed, always heavy-hearted.

Pub Date: July 15, 2002

ISBN: 0-87074-469-0

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Southern Methodist Univ.

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 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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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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