One of our best writers gives us her best book.

BAD DIRT

WYOMING STORIES 2

The much-honored author tightens her grip on the laureateship of western working-class America in this follow-up to Close Range: Wyoming Stories 1 (1999).

Here, again, Proulx limns the harshness of life in Wyoming (mainly in the mountain hamlet of Elk Tooth, site of three thriving saloons) in 11 unsparingly realistic stories. One of them, for instance, chronicles an arty New York couple’s eventual failure to adapt to the rugged surroundings they’d romanticized (“Man Crawling Out of Trees”); another depicts the renewed enmity between long-estranged siblings as they settle their recently deceased centenarian parents’ affairs (“Dump Junk”), rekindling unwelcome memories of “hard years . . . with their entanglement of emotional and money problems, vexing questions about the cosmos, the hereafter, the right way of things, and. . . the slow, wretched betrayals of the flesh.” Proulx’s genius for grim humor glows in wry tales about a beard-growing competition (“The Contest”), a geological malfunction that gives infernal aid to an overworked game-and-fish warden (“The Hellhole”), an ornery barmaid who deals with cattle illegally grazing her land by importing distinctly nonindigenous fellow critters (“Florida Rental”)—and even in the middling “Summer of the Hot Tubs” (predictably anecdotal, though it does make you wish Proulx had included her recipe for “son of a bitch stew”). Comparisons to Mark Twain are inevitable, but Proulx’s wiry sentences have more of the snap and crackle of vintage Ambrose Bierce, and the writer she really resembles most is Flannery O’Connor, as evidenced best in richly detailed accounts of a luckless drifter’s encounter with a violent white-trash “family” (“The Wamsutter Wolf”); of a young part-Sioux woman’s accidental discovery of a prosperous white family’s appropriation of her heritage (“The Indian Wars Refought”); and of a stubborn rancher who long outlives the wild old days, his youth, and all the opportunities he failed to grasp.

One of our best writers gives us her best book.

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 2004

ISBN: 0-7432-5799-5

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2004

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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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