A versatile, prolific author asserts his pre-eminence in short fiction with an unassuming brilliance that almost makes you...



After more than 40 years of publishing short stories, Theroux has become a master of the form, with a deep capacity to engage, enchant and unsettle.

There’s something almost quaint—and ultimately gratifying—about the manner in which Theroux’s stories rely on irony, circumstance and character motivation while retaining their inscrutability. It’s a quality shared by all the great modern storytellers, from Chekhov to Cheever, and Theroux, better known for his witty, idiosyncratic travelogues, can claim their legacies as his own. What connect most of the 20 tales are characters getting even, getting back or just “getting theirs” at the expense of someone who may, or may not, deserve reprisals. In the case of “Rip It Up,” a chillingly prescient story of junior high outcasts collaborating on an explosive device to set off against their tormentors, the outcome yields disorienting, unexpected and ambivalent results. The same holds true for “I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife,” in which a writer returns home for his father’s funeral and uses the occasion to torment a former teacher, now a helpless patient in a convalescent center, with stories suggestive (but never explicitly so) about past abuses by the teacher against the student. Outside of “Our Raccoon Year,” a tale of an over-the-top war against nature that seems a miniature version of Theroux’s best-known novel, The Mosquito Coast, the macabre and absurd elements of Theroux’s stories are more affecting for being rooted in the commonplace and the plausible. Even the shoe salesman in the title story who appears to veer into the deep end by indulging in blackface minstrelsy is depicted as someone you might have known or heard about while growing up. Such characters seem so odd but true that, in the same way he makes exotic locales worth visiting, Theroux inspires you to wonder what you’re overlooking when encountering friends, neighbors and strangers alike.

A versatile, prolific author asserts his pre-eminence in short fiction with an unassuming brilliance that almost makes you think stories will become popular again.

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-544-32402-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

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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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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: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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