Slim pickings from London’s wizard of the warped: seven stories (four published previously) and a novella that offer only an occasional glimmer of Self’s former eerie greatness (Great Apes, 1997, etc.), as drug-dealing and hitchhiking scenarios offer little to transcend the purely conventional. A crack dealer named Danny features in both the lead story and the novella, in the first (—The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz—) as a no-nonsense businessman mining a seam of crack he’s found in his basement and using his addict brother as his runner. The wacky appeal of that story disappears in its sequel, “The Nonce Prize,” which turns the tables: Danny needs the fix while his brother calls the shots. Then a frame-up puts Danny in prison for a grisly crime he didn—t commit—the torture and murder of a six-year-old boy. Cleaner and wiser, Danny places all his hopes in a newfound passion for writing, thinking that winning a prisoners” writing competition will be his salvation. Similarly inconsequential is the title story: a hard-driving, part-time shrink puts the pedal to the metal from the northern Scottish coast to London, blasting the CD player, popping uppers, and slopping single malt from the get-go, stopping only for a desultory hitchhiker—a Scottish alkie for whom he has only contempt but whose brain he picks like the professional he is. Only in pieces like “Flytopia,” in which an understanding is reached between a freelance indexer and his house full of bugs, and to a lesser degree in “A Story for Europe,” in which an angelic British two-year-old starts spouting business German, mystifying his doting parents, do the weird trademark touches emerge and satisfy. Not an utter disappointment, but too close.

Pub Date: May 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-8021-1644-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1999

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?