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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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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