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Essential reading for the writer’s fans; a revelatory footnote for others.

Short fiction from a Southern master of the sweeping, ambitiously themed, epic novel.

Styron (Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays, 2008, etc.) didn’t bother much with short stories, and most of the work here doesn’t really fit that rubric. In fact, the publisher’s note explains that three of these five pieces are fragments from novels that he set aside before his death in 2006. Even “Blankenship,” which adheres the most closely to short-story convention, contains descriptive passages that suggest a longer project. Yet while Styron’s most celebrated novels (Sophie’s Choice, 1979; The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1967) feature protagonists who by gender or race are obviously not him, the first-person narrator of much of the work here could pass as an authorial stand-in: a literary-minded young Marine, in the thrall of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, who attempts to balance military values with his own. The pieces are arranged chronologically by the dates they were written, rather than when they are set, so we can observe the author’s development from the overblown clichés of “Blankenship” (1953), with dialogue straight out of a military prison flick, to the character development and depth of “Marriott, the Marine” (1971) and the exploration of the moral ambiguities of sex and race in “My Father’s House” (1985). The closing snippet, “Elobey, Annobón, and Corisco” (1995) provides the thematic coda: “I found myself in a conflict I had never anticipated: afraid of going into battle, yet even more afraid of betraying my fear, which would be an ugly prelude to the most harrowing fear of all—that when forced to the test in combat I would demonstrate my absolute terror, fall apart, and fail my fellow marines.” Taken as a whole, these fragments illuminate their author’s obsessions and make the reader wish Styron had completed at least two more novels.

Essential reading for the writer’s fans; a revelatory footnote for others.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6822-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2009

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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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A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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