FIDELITY

FIVE STORIES

Berry has employed all the forms he works in—poetry, the essay, fiction short and long—toward an examination of what it means to be placed: what here and elsewhere he calls ``membership''; American individualism-turned-loneliness seems like the nightmare that puts his eloquence to greatest use. Though only one of the five stories here, ``Making It Home''—a war veteran slowly walks his way out of horror toward his known identity, his own Kentucky landscape—describes it expressly, a cradling arc is the shape most fundamental to didactic art from Dante onward; in other stories as well, all set in the community of Port William (Remembering, 1988, etc.), often there is a rescue (such as that, in the title piece, of an old man from a degrading death-in-hospital) or an unnoticed support (``A Jonquil for Mary Penn'')—a floor beneath which one cannot drop. The negatives Berry creates as contrast material aren't done as well as the lightsome positives: a hapless Kentucky State Police detective investigating an abduction in ``Fidelity'' comes off as a straw man pelted by the Port William members with chalky stringencies. The members' inner darkness—such as the shame and desolation (uncamouflaged by urban noise) that the pathetic murderer/suicide in ``Pray Without Ceasing'' undergoes when faced with mercy—strikes more deeply. Ultimately, the prose of the stories less illustrates the Port William values—forgiveness, dignity, fidelity, community—than provides an indelible, sure- footed rhythm for them. Cadenced, eternal-seeming sentences everything; there is an enchantment to them. The last story—``Are You All Right?''—two neighbors going out at night to check on two others—feels almost like a dream whose template-like perfection you wake up shaken by: inevitable, simple, reaching. Uncommonly satisfying art and vision.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-679-41633-1

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1992

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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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