Finely nuanced hymn to the world before Ikea, and the stout West Virginians who peopled it. Recommended.



Ayer (Tales of Chinkapin Creek, 2011) returns with more sparkling sketches of rural West Virginians who lived by their hands, hearts and wits before the age of machines.

Life in the Mountain State in the early 1900s was blessed but hard—even for Nellie Wister, the eldest daughter of prominent farmer Jack and homemaker extraordinaire Carrie, who together raised five children while presiding over hired hands and serving girls who might have graced the set of Upstairs Downstairs, the Appalachia edition. As in her debut volume of stories, Ayer recreates the titular riverine patch in a series of sketches told by Nellie. To the Wister homestead come vendors, gypsies, widows and farm boys marked by solitude, struggle or need—sometimes all three. Yet Nellie’s nostalgia can be as devilishly wry as it is deeply profound. When indoor plumbing is installed on the farm, unflattering misadventures follow. Later, an impending trip to Baltimore sparks a sewing marathon that hushes the household for days. Oddballs with hard-luck stories emerge. There’s the blacksmith, Robert E. Lee Kilgore, a tortured soul who forges a macabre legacy, and the pacifist basket weaver, Levi Eads, who recounts a deadly appointment at Antietam. Ayer’s prose is accomplished throughout, and her details intoxicate—from a blind organ tuner’s flylike fingers and tiny tools to a corpse’s wrinkled trousers. Yet a tendency to summarize occasionally dilutes the drama of otherwise well-told tales. That, and some sentimental stretches, make this a slightly shallower Creek than its predecessor. But only slightly. Especially rich is the author’s descriptive language: The dew before sunrise that cures freckles; the ring of blackberries that sprouted from a lightning strike; the echoing pop of exploding pig bladders announcing well-being to distant neighbors; calf’s jelly and horehound lozenges and leather baseballs fashioned from balls of socks. This is a book to be read much as one would listen to a reed organ, hearing beyond its deep tones high piano notes that herald the changing timbre of a new age.

Finely nuanced hymn to the world before Ikea, and the stout West Virginians who peopled it. Recommended.

Pub Date: June 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-1470135799

Page Count: 168

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

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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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The range and virtuosity of these stories make this Mosley’s most adventurous and, maybe, best book.


A grandmaster of the hard-boiled crime genre shifts gears to spin bittersweet and, at times, bizarre tales about bruised, sensitive souls in love and trouble.

In one of the 17 stories that make up this collection, a supporting character says: “People are so afraid of dying that they don’t even live the little bit of life they have.” She casually drops this gnomic observation as a way of breaking down a lead character’s resistance to smoking a cigarette. But her aphorism could apply to almost all the eponymous awkward Black men examined with dry wit and deep empathy by the versatile and prolific Mosley, who takes one of his occasional departures from detective fiction to illuminate the many ways Black men confound society’s expectations and even perplex themselves. There is, for instance, Rufus Coombs, the mailroom messenger in “Pet Fly,” who connects more easily with household pests than he does with the women who work in his building. Or Albert Roundhouse, of “Almost Alyce,” who loses the love of his life and falls into a welter of alcohol, vagrancy, and, ultimately, enlightenment. Perhaps most alienated of all is Michael Trey in “Between Storms,” who locks himself in his New York City apartment after being traumatized by a major storm and finds himself taken by the outside world as a prophet—not of doom, but, maybe, peace? Not all these awkward types are hapless or benign: The short, shy surgeon in “Cut, Cut, Cut” turns out to be something like a mad scientist out of H.G. Wells while “Showdown on the Hudson” is a saga about an authentic Black cowboy from Texas who’s not exactly a perfect fit for New York City but is soon compelled to do the right thing, Western-style. The tough-minded and tenderly observant Mosley style remains constant throughout these stories even as they display varied approaches from the gothic to the surreal.

The range and virtuosity of these stories make this Mosley’s most adventurous and, maybe, best book.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8021-4956-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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