Here and there the fabric shows signs of wear, yet the workmanship remains as exquisite, as sure and strong, as ever.

THE HILL BACHELORS

A solid ninth collection of 12 varied, moving stories by the Anglo-Irish master (most recently, the novel Death in Summer, 1998).

All the usual Trevor themes are here, with sometimes subtle, sometimes merely minimal variations. The outsider who threatens a complacent marriage or other settled existence assumes nicely differentiated forms in “Three People” (a perfectly awful title), in which a man and woman are both united and paralyzed by “the love that came . . . through their pitying of each other”; “A Friend in the Trade,” whose importunate closeness to a married couple ends in his virtual banishment from their orbit; and “Against the Odds,” in which a lonely widower is fleeced by a pragmatic traveling woman, who thereafter won’t be able to forget him. Solitude saturates “Of the Cloth,” an elderly rural priest’s lament for his faith’s inglorious present; and, notably, “The Virgin’s Gift,” in which a long-cloistered cleric is mysteriously sent back out into the world, to become the long-delayed comfort of his parents’ old age. A few stories—such as “Good News,” about a child “actress” seeking a more comforting world than the one created by her separated parents; “Low Sunday, 1950,” a tepid rehash of Trevor’s overrated novel Fools of Fortune; and “Le Visiteur,” a Maupassant-like anecdote set on a Channel island—seem simply inert on the page. But two pieces are superb. “The Mourning” takes an unassuming Irish lad to London for work, unwanted complicity with the IRA, and an ensuing lifetime of uncertainty as to whether he has acted as a decent man or as a coward and traitor. And the marvelous title story depicts the passive resignation of a rural family’s youngest son, who renounces his chances for happiness, returning to serve his widowed mother’s needs, knowing that “the hills had waited for him, claiming one of their own.”

Here and there the fabric shows signs of wear, yet the workmanship remains as exquisite, as sure and strong, as ever.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-670-89373-0

Page Count: 245

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2000

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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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